UI students organize first campus-wide autism awareness event

BY JENNY EARL | APRIL 09, 2012 6:30 AM

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Local autism experts say interaction between people with autism and those without allows both to learn.

At the Kickoff Festival for Autism, hosted April 7 by the student organization Young Altruistic Professionals of America, groups from throughout the University of Iowa and Iowa City community collaborated to shed light on the issues of autism on campus and in the community.

"We look at our campus, and we see potential, a bunch of people in a small area that has the potential to do good things," said UI sophomore Mike Greeby, a cofounder of the organization. "It'd be nice to see more of the university hosting these events."

Greeby said the organization created the festival in order to bring more autism out-reach on campus.

According to a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, around one in 88 children have been identified with an autism-spectrum disorder. That means of the 30,825 undergraduate, graduate, and professional students who enrolled at the UI in fall 2011, 351 students would have some form of an autism-spectrum disorder, according to a DI analysis.

However, only 12 UI students have registered with an autism-spectrum disorder. Autism experts said this may be caused by students' fear of disclosing their status.

Mark Harris, the director of UI Student Disability Services, said UI students registered as being on the autism spectrum are only provided classroom accommodations and have the option of using counseling services.

The students do not have any specific organization or outlet that brings them together.

"We're a big bustling campus, [there's] a lot of activity and energy all the time," Harris said. "That can be a challenge for someone with a particular sensitivity to all that energy."

Greeby said the organization is working to establish more events for students with autism on campus.

"It's not every day you see a kid on this campus, not to mention a child with autism," Greeby said. "We wanted to have this event … because autism is growing and so prominent and sometimes not as identifiable as other disabilities."

Festival attendants Jennifer Bohn and husband Lee Bohn said they know the effects of autism first-hand. They saw its signs on their son, Tristan Bohn, by his first birthday, before doctors had diagnosed him.

"We had a lot of different medical issues right from the beginning, but he did show signs of [autism] — sensory issues and as time went on a little bit he wasn't picking up the functional things," said Jennifer Bohn, a copresident of the Autism Society.

Tristan, now 9, had difficulty using words and would only repeat what others said, she said, and had trouble feeding himself as he grew older.

The Bohns said they struggled to see their child linger in developing and not vocalize his wants and needs.

"That was very scary for us," Jennifer Bohn said.

Offering creative outlets for the autistic helps them develop the social skills they often struggle with growing up, said Mary Vasey, who runs CombinedEfforts Theater, a local program geared toward people with special needs.

"I think it's always good [to have activities that get kids with autism involved]," she said. "The thing about CombinedEfforts is that we don't emphasize special needs or disabilities of any kind; we look at what they can do best and really emphasize that.

UI sophomore Corey Collins, a cofounder of Young Altruistic Professionals of America, said he supports more outlets for UI students with autism, such as the CombinedEfforts Theater program.

"The university as a whole, it's a great university," he said. "If it sees such a strength in this cause, it's really going to want to do something about that."

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