When Marie Conley, a psychology senior, was 3 years old, her younger brother Tom was diagnosed with autism.
“When he was diagnosed, my parents didn’t really know what autism was,” Conley said. “It’s a good thing for people my age to learn about autism as future parents.”
One in every 110 children born in the United States is diagnosed with autism. With the cause of the disease still unknown, and a cure not yet discovered, there is still information to be learned.
This week for the first time at Cal Poly, two special education credential program students are hosting Autism Awareness Week. Both students of the program, Melissa Quinn and Micaela Kocik organized and planned a day of events.
“I’m excited to talk to students about autism because there is a need to raise awareness,” Kocik said. “There’s a lot of things that can make life for people with special needs easier, and the best way is to spread the word.”
In addition to the event today, there is a display on Dexter lawn representing the one in every 110 children born with autism.
Autism, considered a “spectrum disorder” because it affects individuals in different ways, is a developmental disability characterized by difficulties in social interaction and communication. The spectrum also includes Rett syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, pervasive developmental delay and Asperger’s syndrome.
Autism is the fastest-growing developmental disability with a 1,148 percent growth rate, according to the Autism Society.
Some Cal Poly students have autism, and the number is increasing every year. The Disability Resource Center could not release the exact number of students with the disorder because of confidentiality reasons.
“We want students on campus to know how common autism is,” said Julie Miller, the executive director of the Central Coast Autism Spectrum Center. “I’d also love to see student volunteers from other departments get involved in our program.”
During the month of April, the Autism Society hosts Autism Awareness Month with the goal of improving the lives of all affected by autism.
“Since it is already the month of awareness, we decided to host our event on campus in April,” Quinn said.
Quinn and Kocik have been planning the awareness event since the beginning of spring quarter.
“It was something we decided to take on ourselves,” Quinn said. “We couldn’t have done it without the Cal Poly staff, members of our class and our professors.”
The purpose of the event is to give people a better understanding of what autism is and how to interact with people who have the disorder.
“As an educator, there are different strategies I use while teaching autistic kids,” Quinn said. “Certain settings can be overwhelming for autistic children, but most people don’t know that.”
There are 20 students currently enrolled in the special education credential program at Cal Poly. In addition to earning a masters’ in education and a special education teaching credential, all of the students will also earn autism spectrum disorders authorization upon completion of their coursework. Cal Poly is the first university to make this certification possible as part of graduate study, and the class of 2011 is the first to graduate with this distinction.
Michael Ruef, professor and co-coordinator of Special Education Programs at Cal Poly, was responsible for raising the funds for the awareness event.
“We plan to make this an annual event,” he said, “Next year will be on a grander scale.”
The students involved with the credential program will also appear at the “L!fe Without Limits” fair on Garden Street at 6 p.m. to promote special needs programs in the community.
More children will be diagnosed with autism this year than with AIDS, diabetes and cancer combined, according to Conley. With a growing number of children diagnosed, parents and family members are taking action in their communities.
“I don’t feel like people know anything about autism,” Conley said.
As a student, Conley is more than willing to speak on behalf of her brother.
“Tom lives in a group home, and he’ll probably always have to be in a group home,” Conley said. “It’s nothing I’m ashamed of, and I wish people weren’t so afraid to ask questions.”
Student and community volunteers are hosting the main gathering today in the University Union Plaza from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.