Last fall, the number of Western Carolina University students self-identifying themselves as having autism spectrum disorder doubled from the previous year, reflective of a nationwide trend as individuals with autism make up an increasingly higher percentage of the college-age population.
WCU’s Office of Disability Services is sponsoring Autism Awareness Week on campus from Monday, April 11, through Friday, April 15, to educate the campus community on best practices for working with individuals with autism, to help prepare faculty and staff for the shift in the student population, and to increase awareness, understanding and acceptance, said Meredith Oakley, a graduate intern in the office who has been working with Wesley Satterwhite, WCU’s director of disability services, to organize the week of activities.
“Students with autism live in residence halls, work on campus, go to the Campus Recreation Center, eat in the dining halls, go to advising meetings, attend classes, and participate in clubs and organizations,” Oakley said. “There are no areas on WCU’s campus that are not touched by students, staff or faculty with autism.
“We are trying to provide support for these Catamounts, their families and their friends through this week and get our campus thinking about the best ways we can support and interact with members of the autism spectrum community.”
Activities begin April 11 as staff from the Office of Disability Services join with members of Alpha Xi Delta sorority on the lawn of A.K. Hinds University Center to talk to WCU community members about autism and sign people up to participate in a 5-K race the sorority is sponsoring on April 15. Alpha Xi Delta’s philanthropy area is Autism Speaks, an autism science and advocacy organization, and proceeds from the race will benefit that organization.
Tuesday, April 12, will be “Wear Blue Day” on WCU’s campus as members of the university community are asked to wear blue in support of their fellow Catamounts who have autism.
A workshop for faculty and staff, “College Students on the Autism Spectrum,” will be held from noon until 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 13, to highlight best practices for working with students with autism. The event in Multipurpose Room A of Hinds University Center will feature Jean Alvarez, former assistant director of disability services at WCU, who is now disability services coordinator at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College. Alvarez has been affiliated with the N.C. Autism Society for more than a decade and is extremely knowledgeable about the autistic population, Oakley said. Attendees are invited to bring their lunch.
WCU’s College of Education and Allied Professions will host an autism “Diversity Dialogue” panel discussion from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Thursday, April 14, in Room 102 of Killian Building. Participants will include a current student who has autism.
Alpha Xi Delta’s “Light It Up Blue” 5-K race will begin at 7 p.m. April 15 at the Central Plaza. The fee will be $10, and the first 30 runners who sign up receive a T-shirt. Registration is available online at http://events.autismspeaksu.org/faf/home/default.asp?ievent=1156679 or on the University Center lawn on April 11. More information is available by contacting Katlyn Smith at email@example.com.
WCU’s Autism Awareness Week comes during April, which is national Autism Awareness Month.
“Students on the autism spectrum add to the diversity and richness of the university community,” Satterwhite said. “These students have much to contribute to the academic, social and cultural environment at WCU. It is our hope that with increased awareness and understanding, we will also see greater acceptance of our students with autism and the unique perspectives they provide.”
By Randall Holcombe