April marks National Autism Awareness Month, a month in which the Autism Society promotes autism awareness, inclusion and self-determination for all. Winthrop has contributed to the meaning of the month by hosting walks, discussions and its Think College program that has allowed students with disabilities, including many who are on the autism spectrum, to have a college experience.
Debra Leach, associate professor of special education, started the Winthrop Think College program to promote inclusion of those who might not otherwise get the opportunity to go to college.
“My whole career is based off promoting inclusion so that was an opportunity to have an inclusive program at the university level and provide an opportunity for people who might otherwise not have an opportunity to have a fully inclusive college experience.”
According to the Autism Speaks website, an estimated 50,000 teens with autism become adults-and lose school based autism services-each year.
Autism Speaks is an organization focused on advancing research and advocating for those on the autism spectrum, a similar goal of those who assist in the Winthrop Think College program and other student organizations on campus.
On Saturday, Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc. partnered with the Chrysalis Autism Center in Rock Hill to host a 5k to raise awareness and donations for autism.
Mikel McDaniel, member of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc., was glad to be promoting such a cause.
“I just like giving back to the community and knowing that this could help somebody in a specific way toward a specific cause,” he said.
For Meghan Caldwell, who works at Chrysalis Autism Center, remembers the first time she truly felt like helping children with autism was her calling.
“I was just amazed at what I saw and amazed that there’s this little girl and she didn’t have a way to express what she wanted and all she knew was to lay on the ground and cry,” Caldwell said.
She continues on, “So I was very intrigued by what was happening and then you know, watched how they were able to facilitate language for her when she wasn’t able to do it herself.”
For others at the walk, raising awareness for autism hit a little closer to home.
Kaitlin Cobb, a participant and one who works with children on the autism spectrum, has a special connection to the cause.
“My sister is on the autism spectrum, so she kind of sparked all of that,” she said.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that autism effects 1 in 68 children in the United States, including 1 in 42 boys and 1 in 189 girls, according to autismspeaks.org.
Autism is present in both the Rock Hill community and in the United States and Leach has found that the hardest thing she has faced in her line of work was the people who didn’t know how to interact with children on the autism spectrum.
“I would say the belief systems of other people, so people who have lower expectations of people with autism and other developmental disabilities and people think there is something special they should be doing instead of doing the things that we normally do day-to-day,” she said.
As April soon comes to a close, Leach wants people to remember that those with autism have something special to give to the community.
“I would say that people with autism have so much to contribute to their families, friends, to the community, to people they work for. It’s not like being aware of how different they are or disabled they are, it’s about recognizing that this isn’t something that needs to be cured or fixed,” Leach said.