Because of what they say is a lack of awareness for autism within the Harvard community, a group called Harvard Undergraduates Raising Autism Awareness is launching a campaign this month to bring increased attention to the condition.
HURAA is supported by Harvard Medical School Professor Martha R. Herbert and was founded by three undergraduates: Ariana C. Cernius ’13, Samuel Q. Singer ’13, and Ian G. Roy ’14. They chose to come together to raise awareness of autism because of shared experiences with close family members who have autism spectrum disorders. Currently there is no campus student organization focused on autism.
Cernius has been involved in raising awareness for the condition since high school. She has first-hand experiences dealing with the disorder as her younger brother Andrew was diagnosed with autism at the age of 16 months.
"I always felt the need to stick up for and protect my brother from people who judged him out of ignorance, or treated him differently," she said.
Upon coming to Harvard she aimed to continue raising awareness, but after finding no existing forum to do so, she and a few like-minded individuals decided to start their own.
HURAA aims to counter the stereotypes surrounding autism in popular culture.
April is Autism Awareness Month, and HURAA has launched what they call the light it up yellow campaign. For every $1 pledged by students, HURAA will put up a yellow puzzle piece poster on campus. There will also be bracelets and candy with autism facts available.
Proceeds will go to autism related charities and future autism guest speakers. HURAA plans to begin fundraising outside the Science Center and Annenberg in coming weeks.
Cernius said that movies have perpetuated the idea that autism is associated with savant-like qualities, such as the incredible card counting abilities of Sean Penn’s character in the movie "Rain Man."
Autism is a spectrum disorder, which means that its symptoms can include varying degrees of impaired social interaction and repetitive behavior. Sean Penn’s character represents an exaggerated version of someone afflicted with Asperger’s syndrome, a highly functional subset of the autism spectrum.
The wide range of the autism spectrum can cause confusion for people not familiar with the disease. Most cases of autism fall into the other end of the spectrum and exhibit symptoms some people may confuse with those of mental retardation, a point that often frustrates the loved ones of people dealing with autism.
"When they immediately classify my brother as ‘that retard,’ my blood boils. There are very few things that make me angry, and that is one of them," Singer said.
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