Autism event sheds light on campus

St. John’s University participated in a worldwide initiative to raise awareness and funds for autism by lighting the Queens Campus blue and hosting events featuring children with the disorder last week.

Autism Speaks, the largest autism science and advocacy organization in North America, asked iconic buildings, and various organizations around the world, to turn their lights blue, in its second annual “Light it Up Blue” campaign for World Autism Awareness Day on April 2.

According to the organization’s Web site, the campaign enlisted more “than 500 structures in more than 120 U.S. cities and 25 countries” to participate.

From the Empire State Building to the Great Buddha Statue in Japan, and the Palace of Arts in Hungary, lights were lit in the same calming light blue. At St. John’s, the D’Angelo Center and St. Thomas More church were lit.

Student-athletes also hung large blue bows with blue puzzle pieces containing information about autism from the D’Angelo Center to Carnesecca Arena on Wednesday.

The events started with a breakfast in the D’Angelo Center on Thursday, which featured a showing of the film, Temple Grandin, a recent HBO movie about a woman who revolutionized the cattle industry while living with autism.

During the breakfast, autism pins, bracelets, and t-shirts were sold to raise money.

Later in the afternoon, children with autism from P.S. 177 came to the Queens campus for “Funtime Sessions.”  Education majors assisted the children with arts and crafts, story time, coloring, snack time, and a “Light it Up Blue” egg hunt.

The kids also played soccer with the women’s soccer team in the Auxiliary Gym in Carnesecca Arena. These events were designed to help the children experience everyday normal activities.

Senior Erica Zissel, who helped to plan some of the events, stressed that “children with autism are just like me and you.”

“You don’t want to label a child,” she said. “You don’t want to say that this is an autistic child. You want the child to have a normal childhood that any other kid would have.”

Mothers of children who have autism echoed a similar message when they spoke to students on Thursday night, and on Friday, siblings told the community what it means to be a sibling of someone with a disability.

Lisa Quinones-Fontanez, whose son has autism, created the website autismwonderland.com to inform everyone about the positive sides of autism.

“I’m not interested in a cure; I don’t think autism is a disease. Cancer needs a cure, autism just needs acceptance,” said Quinones-Fontanez.  

Kenia Nunez, whose son has Asperger’s syndrome, said her goal is “to educate the world.”

Nunez said that her son has no friends, but once saved another boy’s life by performing the Heimlich maneuver when others just stood by.  

Nunez, who is part of friendstogrow.com, said people with autism have “a lot of unique talents, and a lot unique gifts” that others don’t have.

“My son reads 700 page books in a matter of a week; if you give it to him he’ll finish it,” she added.

Autism describes a group of disorders which “affects the way a child perceives the world and makes communication and social interaction difficult” the Autism Speaks organization said.    

The group’s website also said that Asperger’s syndrome, along with Rett syndrome and Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, make up what many refer to as Autism Spectrum Disorders.

According to autismspeakscom, “more children will be diagnosed with autism this year than with AIDS, diabetes and cancer combined.”