New autism-centered student organization approved

Cameron Gorman

Kent State is welcoming a new student organization called Autism Connections Kent, to campus this school year. The group focuses on students within the autism spectrum, and is one of the first of its kind in the nation.

“Our goal was to create a group that’s unique in the fact that it’s intended to provide a social network for autistic students on campus,” said president Alyx Weaver. “It’s not an advocacy group. We aren’t looking to provide more disability services. (Instead), we are trying to cultivate a sense of belonging in students that are on the spectrum.”

The idea for the organization was first conceived through another Kent State program, the Autism Task Force.

Gina Campana, the group’s co-adviser and main leader of the task force, has a son with Aspergers syndrome.

“It was a no-brainer for me that I wanted to do something for students who have autism,” Campana said.

Administered through the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, the task force aims to provide more awareness and resources for spectrum-identifying students on campus and those who interact with them.

The task force generated a program of awareness through posters, pamphlets and developed helpful information for both students and educators.

“Another goal of the initiative is to spread awareness and understanding,” Campana said. “Students get bullied a lot, who are on the spectrum … they’re different, and sometimes they get bullied because of those differences.”

The task force, however, is not student-based, and the need for a more specific group became clear with increased student interest.

“I am extremely excited about the student organization, not only because it’s trailblazing, but because (of) the students,” Campana said. “Their faces light up every time they’re talking about it.”

The first meeting is set to take place on Sept. 15. Two meetings are planned for each month, one is educational and the other social, said Lisa Audet, co-faculty adviser.

“They’re arranging for speakers to come in and talk about things such as safety, medications, learning style (and) they’re also planning social events like bowling, game night, those kinds of things,” Audet said.

The group aims to provide a network for those on the spectrum in what can be an intimidating environment for those with autism and Aspergers, and plans to focus on recasting autism as a “diversity” rather than a “disability.”

“Autism is not a disability, it’s a difference,” Campana said. “They have high sensitivities to light (and) sounds.”

Those who identify on the spectrum often have trouble with sensory sensitivity and social cues, but are often highly intelligent and develop specialized interests in certain subjects.

“Most people on the spectrum, I think, would agree that they have a lot of features that make them unique and valuable in a community,” Weaver said.

“Neurotypical,” or allies without autism, are also allowed to attend meetings and events. However, the group desires to keep the focus on those on the spectrum who are seeking support through the program.

“I don’t know how much people realize … how hard it is for students, who are socially shy, to get together and create an organization, and put themselves out there,” Campana said.

The group will allow its members to create a support system of friends and similar people.

Weaver stressed the importance that every college campus should recognize that each individual reacts differently to the environment.

“We don’t want to lose those people because we don’t know what their potential is,” Weaver said.

Those, like Weaver—who worked on bringing the organization to life —hope that it will not only serve students in need with social and casual options, but also help them to realize their potential abilities.

“It’s important for them to feel more connected to the life of the university (and) to begin to identify the skills and talents that they have to offer to the university,” Audet said,”(as well as) learn how to self advocate in constructive ways, and almost as a preparation for leadership when they hit the workforce.”

Contact Cameron Gorman at [email protected].