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Autism Awareness Month kicks off

Not all students welcome awareness initiative with open arms

April brings warm spring weather, looming finals, Foxfield and lots of tabling. Lesser known is that April is also National Autism Awareness Month, which raises awareness about the disorder which affects an estimated 2 million Americans. As a part of a national initiative, the University’s chapter of Autism Speaks U plans to use this month to raise awareness about the cause around Grounds.

Autism Speaks U is a national collegiate organization under the larger umbrella of Autism Speaks, the world’s largest advocacy and research group for autism spectrum disorders.

“Our main goals are to raise awareness [about autism] in the Charlottesville community and to fundraise for the national organization,” said third-year College student Allison Ratliff, president of the University’s chapter.

The University chapter, founded in the spring of 2011, started off the month with a display of blue flags by the South Lawn. There are 88 blue flags and one white flag, intended to represent the one in 88 newborns that are affected by autism.

The group also painted and strung blue lights across Beta Bridge as a part of the Light It Up Blue campaign, a national campaign to get famous landmarks to display some form of blue coloring on April 2, World Autism Awareness Day. Blue is the unofficial color designated to promote autism awareness and is often seen in ribbons alongside the symbolic puzzle piece.

“[Throughout the project], we did a lot of awareness activities and made our presence [known] on Grounds,” Ratliff said. “This is something we’ve been striving to do since we’re so new.”

Although Autism Awareness Month is a nationally recognized movement, it is not always an accepted and celebrated campaign. Many who are on the autism spectrum themselves, such as second-year Arts & Sciences Graduate student Jeremy Moody, feel awareness groups like Autism Speaks only serve to marginalize people on the autism spectrum.

“Autism Speaks presents autism as a health crisis, as something to be afraid of [and cured],” Moody said. “I am a college graduate. I am working towards a masters degree. I am an example of how autism is not always a bad thing. I think I can contribute a lot because of my autism.”

Instead, Moody promotes an alternative path for those wishing to advocate for autism.

“For us in the autism community, the advocates, we push more for acceptance,” Moody said. “Awareness doesn’t always mean acceptance.”

Autism Speaks U’s participation in Autism Awareness Month will culminate in a benefit concert on April 20 in conjunction with the Asian Student Union. The concert will feature YouTube artists Jeremy Passion, Melissa Polinar and Jesse Barrera. The event will also include an Autism Speaks U presentation before the show, and the group plans to sell wristbands to raise money and awareness throughout the night.