Students Spread Autism Awareness

Posted by Julia Leef

In conjunction with April - Autism Awareness month - this week the college featured many events hosted by Professor of Psychology Rachel Mann-Rosan's PS-212B Developmental Disabilities and Autism class. These events ranged from panels of students speaking about their experiences in working or living with people with special needs to guests from the non-profit organizations Saratoga Bridges and ASPIRe NY presenting at information sessions to help raise awareness about autism.

The series of events started on Tuesday, April 5 with a showing of the film, The Horse Boy. On Monday, April 11, a panel of students spoke about their experiences in working with children with special needs. The majority of the panel previously worked with children on the autistic spectrum at a special needs summer camp. One helped a student with Aspergers Syndrome in theater, and another, Elizabeth Karp '11, did research at UCLA with a focus on people affected by autism.

Nearly all of the college students said they just "fell into it" through the suggestions of family or friends and have enjoyed their time working personally with autistic children. They taught the children how to play with one another and assisted them in social situations, which many special needs children find difficult or awkward.

Each student on the panel emphasized the uniqueness of each individual child, saying that they were simply normal children who had trouble expressing themselves in a way that others could understand. One student described a boy who had an exceptional memory, and had memorized the floor plans of every mall in the area where he lived. For the students, their experiences provided lessons in patience, cooperation, and in dealing with difficult situations. They recommended that other students participate in special needs summer camps and other opportunities in working with children on the autism spectrum.

The Drastic Measures, the college's co-ed charity a cappella group, performed briefly and talked about their experience in working with and donating money to ASPIRe NY, which provides recreational activities for teens and young adults on the autism spectrum in the greater Saratoga County and Capital District Region.

Tuesday, April 12, featured three guests from Saratoga Bridges who spoke about various topics relating to those with autism. Beth Mormando, speech and language pathologist, discussed effective ways to communicate with people on the autism spectrum. Cassandra Estey, behavior specialist, talked about positive behavior supports and some disorders of the autism spectrum. At the end of the presentation, Wendy Ashe, certified occupational therapy assistant, gathered the audience together to simulate what it felt like to be autistic by having them follow a series of rapid instructions while overloading their senses with noise and flashing lights. Several people could not go through with the exercise, and one students even said that he thought he was going to throw up.

Two events occurred on Wednesday, April 13, that involved stories from parents of children on the autistic spectrum and speakers from ASPIRe. In the latter, Julie Marks, one of the co-founders of the organization, spoke about how people normally perceive those with Asperger's Syndrome and other forms of autism, and the importance of people accepting that they are autistic.

Melanie Hecker, a three-year member of ASPIRe who was diagnosed with Asperger's at a young age and is now 17 and about to enter into college, spoke about her experience with the syndrome. She talked about many issues that people diagnosed with Asperger's have, such as difficulties with social interactions, reading emotions, and coping with sensory overload. Melanie also emphasized that such issues differ from case to case. "When you've met one person with Asperger's, you've met one person with Asperger's," she said.

Melanie added that she has enjoyed her time with ASPIRe, saying that she is able to interact with people in a way that she was not always able to in school. "I have people who I can be close to," she said, "and I don't have to question whether they're my friends or not."

Marks concluded the meeting by suggesting that students who wished to become more involved could volunteer as peer mentors in the program. She and her partner Deborah Garrelts can be contacted at info@aspireny.org.

In the morning on Thursday, April 14, students of Mann-Rosan's PS 212B class presented posters on autism and developmental disabilities in the Case Center, and in the evening Paul A. H. Partridge, Ph.D., who practices psychology in Schenectady, NY, gave a review of the recent research on the epidemiology of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), as well as some of the proposed changes to the ASD diagnoses to the next diagnostic manual.

Mann-Rosan, who had hosted an Autism Awareness week last year with her class, said that on average there were about 25-30 people at each event, and this year was the same, if not better. Students tell her that they find the events interesting and relevant, which is not surprising considering most of these students, according to Mann-Rosan, know someone on the autism spectrum who is regularly involved in their lives. "It seems like it's an issue that is touching the lives of the Skidmore community," she said. "I felt like it was a mechanism for helping the students to feel as if they are getting involved and becoming more intimately involved in the subject."

Last year, Mann-Rosan was invited to give a talk on autism at a local conference with childcare providers. Prior to coming to Skidmore, she worked as a supervising psychologist at Saratoga Bridges, where she was able to reach out to the community and spread awareness about her work. "I have devoted my career to this," she said, "and my hope is that it will inspire young people to want to get involved in their own way."

In addition to contacting the aforementioned organizations, students may also visit the parent-run organization Upstate NY Autism Awareness's website (www.upstatenyautism.org) or contact families who are looking for students to work with their children one-on-one. Senator Roy McDonald, who spoke at the Autism Awareness week last year, may also be contacted for information on the legislative side of these issues.

"I encourage students to be open to people who are different," she said. "To be open to experiences like volunteering . . . and to get involved."

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