For two years, mathematics senior Dara Stepanek has held a game night in Muir Hall every quarter for people in the autism spectrum (those with pervasive development disorders), and anyone else who wants to participate. The last game night was Friday.
Stepanek has been a resident advisor (RA) in Muir Hall for two years, and one of her duties was to put on activities.
“I thought the game night would be a great way to connect freshmen students in Muir Hall dorms with autistic children,” Stepanek said. “The response from residents, and from the guests, has been great, and it’s always worked out well.”
Stepanek was first introduced to the autistic community in the area in fall 2010, through Kim Richards, an employee at Tidelands Counseling Center in San Luis Obispo. Richards sent an email to Cal Poly University Housing saying there was going to be a teen dance for children with autism and she wanted Cal Poly students to volunteer, Stepanek said.
Three Fridays in a row Stepanek went to plan meetings for the dance. The point of the planning meetings were to help the kids plan and implement their own dance.
“They picked the themes, they made the decorations,” Stepanek said.
The dance was a success and Stephanek had fun being involved. She had the idea to put on game night in the dorm because she realized there aren’t many local activities put on for people with autism.
Normally when there are events planned, they’re not intended for people on the autistic spectrum or are intended exclusively for people on the autistic spectrum, but the dance was open to anyone, Stepanek said.
“It was advertised as an all-inclusive teen dance,” Stepanek said.
Stepanek said she knew how much fun everyone had at the dance, and she wanted to have an all-inclusive game night as well.
“I just like kids, so I think that’s a big part of it,” Stepanek said about why she likes working with autistic children. “I think it’s probably the easiest mental or social disorder to introduce yourself to.”
At game nights, attendees on the autistic spectrum have ranged from age 4 to 27, Stepanek said.
The autistic spectrum ranges from low-functioning to high-functioning people. People on the high-functioning end of the spectrum mainly just have problems with socializing, Stepanek said.
Although Stepanek can’t be an RA next year because she will be a graduate student, she said she hopes to eventually move the game night into a bigger area outside of Muir to get more students involved.
Mathematics freshman Maria Manzo currently helps Stepanek with game night and plans to lead the event as an RA next year.
“I want to be a teacher and thought it would be a good opportunity to get involved with people of different ages,” Manzo said.
Manzo said she enjoys spending time with people who are autistic.
“By helping them out, I feel that I’m able to be a sort of support system for them,” Manzo said. “And also just be a friend for them.”
There were a variety of games and paints set out for the last game night. All of the games and paints were available at the front desk in the dorms, and the only thing the students had to do to prepare for game night was put them out on the tables. Plus, there’s a budget for putting on events in the dorms, and Stepanek usually spends $20 on snacks.
Contractor Brian Cully brought his son, Cypress, to game night for the first time on May 11 so he could have an opportunity to be more social and meet people.
“Cypress’ favorite game tonight is Monopoly,” Brian said. “(Cypress) doesn’t really have any issues; he’s just shy. He seems to be socializing well here. It seems like a lot of kids like games these days, you know, so it’s a cool thing to do.”
Brian said he’ll leave it up to his son to decide if he wants to come back to the next game night.
Another father that brought his son to game night for the first time is Eric Ferrari, a mathematics teacher at Righetti High School in Santa Maria.
Ferrari and his son found out about game night through his son’s counselor at Tidelands Counseling. His son has Asperger’s — a syndrome similar to autism, but children with Asperger’s are normally higher-functioning and mainly have problems with skills such as socialization.
Many people don’t realize it, but some people with Asperger’s and autism attend college and live life like any other person. Ferrari’s son’s friend, Cal Poly alumnus Dana Goyette, graduated in 2011 and also comes to game night.
“It’s a good chance to meet people and get away from the computer — where I am usually,” Goyette said.
“I came to game night just to play games and to meet people,” Patrick Foster said. “I liked playing Twister and meeting all the people.”
Foster said he found out about game night through his mom, Victoria Randall.
“I started a social group for young adults with autism,” Randall said.
May 11 was the second time Randall and Foster went to game night with the group.
“I just think it’s great because the students interact and mingle and it’s a real good social activity,” Randall said. “(Foster) enjoyed it the past two times … I hope they continue it next year.”
In addition to Muir residents and residents of Trinity helping, some members of Cal Poly Hip Hop Congress went to game night as well. It was their first time helping out.
“We got invited because we’re helping with the autism dance,” Cal Poly Hip Hop Congress club president and computer science senior Ryan Badilla said. “I just think the kids are really, really cool. They’re stoked about everything, so it’s really fun.”
The teen dance Cal Poly students are helping put on will be at United Methodist Church on May 18 from 7 to 9:30 p.m. Though the dance is being held at a church, it’s not based around religion, Stepanek said.