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Autism Awareness Month Ends While Autism Speaks U Continues Growth

The Maneater
Caroline Bauman

As Autism Awareness Month draws to a close, freshman Alyssa Weeks and sophomore Jennifer Bennett are looking to the future of autism awareness on campus.

Weeks started Autism Speaks U at Mizzou last October, a collegiate chapter of the autism science and advocacy organization Autism Speaks.

The organization – the first of its kind on campus – had only five members when it started. It now boasts more than 60 members on its Facebook page, and members held several events over the month of April to raise awareness on campus, Weeks said.

The group participated in “Light It Up Blue” on World Autism Awareness Day on April 2 by lighting part of the University Bookstore blue.

“People have started to become more aware on campus,” Weeks said. “We had people come up to our table in front of the bookstore and ask about posters they had been seeing around campus.”

Weeks and Bennett both have younger brothers who have been diagnosed with autism. Bennett said she hoped increased awareness would help people to better understand those on the autism spectrum.

“Students need to understand that people with autism are not weird, they just think differently,” Bennett said. “My little brother doesn’t want to be treated differently and he doesn’t want to realize that people see him in a different way.”

Most members have a direct connection with someone who is autistic, Weeks said. A freshman on the spectrum has also joined the group.

“He said he was really glad that there was something like this here,” Weeks said. “He wished more people in his situation knew about it.”

Weeks said even if you are not directly connected to autism, it is still important to be aware of the issue and know how to better interact.

“It is a life skill to have,” Weeks said. “You never know who you are going to meet.”

About one in 88 children are now diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, according to a study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in March. This number has nearly doubled within the past five years.

“Everyone will be affected by autism in some way,” said Hope McPheeters, director and co-founder of Ella’s Hope for Autism. “The number increases by the day, and raising awareness with that is key.”

McPheeters and her husband started the charity in 2010, after their daughter Ella was diagnosed with autism at the age of 2.

The charity also participated in the awareness month by hosting the Mid-MO Walk for Autism last Saturday. Approximately 300 people participated in the walk, and more than $10,000 was raised, McPheeters said.

“All of the money raised goes to families and organizations in mid-Missouri,” McPheeters said. “Areas surrounding Columbia don’t have a lot of resources. We have a lot of ties to this area and this is where we are focusing.”

Part of the donations from the walk goes to the university’s Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders, said Cheryl Unterschutz, senior information specialist at the Thompson Center.

The Thompson Center participated in events throughout April for autism awareness, ranging from a rally in Jefferson City to a collaborative event with the Kansas Center for Autism Research and Training in Kansas City.

Unterschutz said one of the goals of Autism Awareness Month is to dispel misconceptions.

“A lot of times people don’t realize how talented and capable those on the spectrum are,” Unterschutz said. “Adults and children alike can contribute so much, if society can adapt and let them.”

The majority of children identified with an autism spectrum disorder do not have an intellectual disability, according to the CDC study. The largest increasing proportion of children with autism have IQs of 85 or higher.

Overall, it has been a busy but successful awareness month for the state of Missouri, Unterschutz said.

“The growth we have seen is encouraging, especially how (Autism Speaks U at Mizzou) has reached out to student groups,” Unterschutz said. “We are hoping to collaborate projects with them in the future.”

Bennett, who will take over as president of the organization next year, said she hopes Autism Speaks U at Mizzou will continue to grow.

“There’s a range of involvement needed,” Bennett said. “We’ll hold meetings once or twice a month next year. We are open to any ideas – whoever wants to help, we’d love to have them.”

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Date: 5/1/2012