New club dedicated to spreading autism awareness

BY MOLLY SULDS ’14
Contributing Writer

Students for Autism, a newly-formed organization, hosted its first event of the semester, a screening of the film A Mother’s Courage, Thursday.

The film, narrated by actress Kate Winslet, takes an in-depth look at autism research and its effects on individuals and families. It follows the story of Margret Dagmar Ericsdottir, an Icelandic mother of a severely autistic boy, as she meets with experts in the field, such as Temple Grandin, a famous high-functioning autistic woman, and learns about available treatments for the disorder.

The film primarily focuses on the Rapid Prompting Method, a method involving tapping on a letter board to stimulate responses to questions. Ericsdottir’s son, Keli, is seen going through the treatment and he transforms from being unresponsive to selecting the right response the majority of the time. This transformation is just one of many seen in the film, showing these are children who can improve with appropriate treatments.

Due to such improvements in efforts to understand and treat this disorder, over the past few years F&M students have seen a need to open up a dialogue about autism.

“The club was started last semester out of the volunteers who worked for the local non-profit, The Tommy Foundation (TTF),” said Emily Song ’13, president of Students for Autism. “TTF has many F&M volunteers who are interested in working with an individual with autism to improve social skills, eye contact, attention span, and other useful tasks. Students for Autism was formed as a student counterpart to TTF. Our hope is to raise awareness about this developmental disorder, to popularize acceptance of the individuals with autism, and to provide support for the parents and family members who have an autistic relative.”

The members and volunteers feel a need to educate the community about autism and promote discussion about it. Through film screenings and other events, the organization is bridging the gap between those who may not know about autism and the people and families it affects.

One such person whose family has been affected by autism is Sugey Cruz-Everts ’00, president of TTF.

“Founded in 2005 by parents of a child on the autism spectrum, The Tommy Foundation is an emerging voice for the autism movement,” Cruz-Everts said when describing the organization. “Today, the Foundation provides direct assistance to families, as well as trainings to hundreds of students, professionals, PhD candidates, and doctors to date.”

Cruz-Everts has seen many ways in which families affected by autism and F&M students have had a mutually beneficial relationship.

“We have been involving students in some shape or form with programs since our founding,” Cruz-Everts said. “We have trained well over 100 students in the last six years in how to work directly with individuals on the spectrum.”

For the families and individuals affected by autism spectrum disorder (ASD), this partnership with students has proven to be just as
invaluable.

“At its core, autism is a ‘relational,’ not just behavioral, condition,” Cruz-Everts said. “Individuals with autism often times desire to have a connection with others but are not really sure how. Having a connection with more and more people and having students try to facilitate that helps the child/individual form a bond with that student that can last a lifetime (if you let it) and can help families feel less isolated because they have members of the community that are willing to accept and care about their children.”

Cruz-Everts is grateful for the work F&M students have done over the past seven years and emphasizes anyone can be a successful
volunteer.

“All you need to do is care and put everything you’ve got into creating a bond/relationship,” she said. “That isn’t something you can learn by reading a book or in the classroom. No amount of research is going to teach you how to relate to another human being, especially one that finds the typical way we do things confusing or isolating.”

Although the club is relatively new, the members have already held successful events in conjunction with TTF. Last year they hosted Sensitive Santa in preparation for the holidays.

“We are doing our second Sensitive Santa event on Dec. 9 in the College Center this year,” Song said. “Children with autism will be able to take pictures with Santa, make holiday crafts, play with sensory toys, and enjoy holiday fun without the meltdowns that often accompany large occasions like this.”

After last year’s Sensitive Santa event, Song and others recognized the need to bring more awareness to F&M. To get involved with the Sensitive Santa event or the club please contact Song at esong@fandm.edu. The club meets the second and fourth Thursday of every month at 5:30 p.m. in Stager 119.

Questions? Email Molly at msulds@fandm.edu.

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