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The Blue & Gray Press | August 17, 2017

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Autism Awareness Month observed at UMW, draws controversy from campus groups

Autism Awareness Month observed at UMW, draws controversy from campus groups

By TESSA CATE

The University of Mary Washington kicked off Autism Awareness Month on April 2 with the lighting of a tree on Ball Circle in celebration of World Autism Awareness Day.

The tree was lit as part of a campaign called “Light It Up Blue,” run by Autism Speaks. The tree can currently be seen covered with blue light and plans to remain lit until the end of the month- long autism awareness celebration.

According to the Autism Speaks website, “autism statistics from the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identify around one in 68 American children as on the autism spectrum.”

In order to celebrate the “over 3 million individuals in the United States and tens of millions worldwide” touched by autism, the entire month of April has been dedicated as a time to be spent focusing on autism education.

Every organization and student group has a different approach to the way Autism Awareness Month is celebrated, and the carrying out of the “Light It Up Blue” campaign on the UMW campus has prompted controversy and debate over how the campus community has chosen to talk about autism and promote the awareness of it.

According to their website, UMW’s Office of Disability Resources “works with the university community to increase awareness, eliminate barriers, and create a welcoming and inclusive environment for students with disabilities.” In order to work towards their goal of increasing awareness and creating a welcoming and inclusive environment free from barriers, they made the decision to “light up a tree [on] Ball Circle for the month of April as a visual prompt for autism awareness/acceptance.”

Though autism is a disorder that touches the lives of many, not all groups on campus agree with the way in which the Office of Disability Resources has decided to promote the awareness of it.

DiversAbility, a UMW club for students on campus with disabilities or chronic health conditions, recently wrote a letter to The Blue & Gray Press expressing their disappointment with the way the school has chosen to carry out their Autism Awareness Month celebration and has made it clear that they prefer to focus on “autism acceptance.”

In the club’s letter, published in the March 31 edition of The Blue & Gray Press, they cited issues with the logo of Autism Speaks – the organization behind the “Light It Up Blue” campaign. The logo, a standalone blue puzzle piece, is described by DiversAbility as “[focusing] on the weaknesses of autism,” and “[pointing] to what is lacking for the individual, not what is gained.”

In addition the issues with the logo, the club’s president, Natalia Palacois, has stated that DiversAbility also has concerns regarding the organization’s mission because “Autism [Speaks] supports the idea that Autism should be cured, something many people with Autism do not agree with.”

The clash over the Autism Speaks logo and their mission has prompted DiversAbility to refrain from lending their support to the university and their celebration of Autism Awareness Month. The club believes that the intentions behind the “Light It Up Blue” campaign are good but slightly misguided.

Despite the conflict in opinion, the tree will stay lit for the duration of the month of April. The blue tree is meant to serve as a reminder of the awareness and the acceptance this community must constantly be developing and exhibiting. Though not all of campus is unified behind this specific way of celebrating autism awareness, the community can still remain unified by the cause.

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