UCI Raises Autism Awareness

The color blue was plastered everywhere in the Student Center. Blue shirts. Blue ribbons. Blue markers.

Elizabeth Montiel, third-year psychology and history double major, stood amidst the blue. She weaved in and out, answering questions and giving tasks to members of Autism Speaks U, a new organization on campus.

She was on a mission to get her members ready for Autism Awareness week – an event that will premiere for the first time and work to stimulate discussion and dialogue on the disorder.

Montiel has personally been affected by autism. Autism is a disorder that affects development, social skills and learning abilities. Her older brother, now 22 years old, has had difficulties both at school and at home.

Twenty years ago, when her brother was first diagnosed, there was not much research on autism, and her mother left the doctor dumbfounded about how to help her son.

Coming from a single parent home and a Hispanic upbringing, Montiel saw how difficult it was for her family to accept her brother. Her extended family thought her mother had done something wrong, and Montiel shouldered much of the burden of raising her older brother.

When she arrived at UC Irvine as a freshman, Montiel decided to start the organization but wasn’t able to find sufficient time.

Beginning her third year, Montiel teamed up with Lindsay Marco, second-year psychology and social behavior major, and Jessica Kraai, a second-year cognitive psychology major.

After registering the organization with the dean of students, the three made announcements about Autism Speaks U in various psychology classes.

The three agreed that it was difficult to spread the word about their cause on campus. According to Montiel, Orange County is one of the smaller counties in California but has the highest rate of autism. In addition, it is estimated that one in 110 children is diagnosed with autism.

“Not a lot of people know about autism,” Montiel said. “People are not aware of how much it can affect the person.”

One of the focuses of the organization is to bring awareness to autism and plan fundraisers to raise money for research.

“Every child who has autism is not the same,” Montiel said. “There are different symptoms, different reactions, the therapy is not the same for everyone. Every child is unique.”

Autism Speaks U also works with local support groups such as Grupo de Autismo Angeles and Talking about Curing Autism in planning volunteer events.

Some of these events include childcare, where parents of autistic children can attend community seminars and Spirit League, a sports league for children with autism. With Spirit League, volunteers can build relationships with the kids and develop first-hand experiences with them through activities like basketball and baseball.

Lavina Ho, a third-year anthropology and cognitive psychology double major, serves as the organization’s off-campus Community Outreach Chair and plans many of the events.

Her experience with autism stems from a retreat at the University of Redlands, where she was given a nine-year-old autistic child to work with for three days. The experience was overwhelming, eye-opening and motivating. After the retreat, she was inspired to get other people involved in the cause.

“At Spirit League, the people are incredibly kind and attentive,” Ho said. “The kids are so great, and so fun to get along with.”

Autism Speaks U meets Monday nights at 6 p.m. in Woods Cove C. Beginning Monday, April 18 to Friday, April 22, the organization will hold an Autism Awareness Week to raise awareness about autism. Free giveaways and activities, like trivia and a presentation by a panel of experts, will be included and the week concludes with the Autism Speaks Walk in Pasadena.