At the end of the fall semester, the student group U-Nited for Autism announced that it was disbanding, leaving the university without a group dedicated to support those with autism or those who care for someone on that spectrum.
Low member turnout and a lack of future club leaders have plagued the club the past couple of years, although co-presidents Nicole Pavlick and Emily Mentz can’t pin down exactly what went wrong.
“We did not do much directed outreach to individuals on the spectrum, but we presented ourselves as a group for anyone connected or interested in autism, in whatever sense that was,” Mentz said. “We had members on the spectrum, those with family members or friends on the spectrum, and those who hoped to work with individuals on the spectrum in their future careers.”
U-Nited for Autism held monthly meetings where speakers would share their experiences with autism. Other meeting activities included watching and discussing movies portraying autism, looking at new research or making crafts to build community among its club members
Neither Mentz nor Pavlick, who have served as presidents since fall 2015, are on the autism spectrum, but both became passionate about autism advocacy because of their families. Mentz’s younger brother is on the autism spectrum; Pavlick’s mother became a special education teacher after Pavlick’s twin was diagnosed with cerebral palsy.
“The brain is so weird and unique, and it shouldn’t necessarily be altered,” Pavlick said. She can recall some amazing abilities she has seen people on the autism spectrum have; some were brilliant, pursuing PhDs in computer science; one young man could hear a Mozart song once and play it back perfectly on piano. Pointing out the beauty of different ways of thinking, she rejected the idea that most cases of autism must be cured and argues for a world of respect and support so families can adapt.
Despite membership difficulties, the club has held successful fundraisers. In spring 2016, U-Nited for Autism registered more than 130 runners and raised $3,000 to $4,000 for the Autism Society of Minnesota during its annual 5K run, which was an incredible feat from the $300, 20-runner turnout from the year before.
But time and commitment has hampered momentum from that. While the group could have coordinated one last 5K this spring before all three members of the executive board graduated, Pavlick said that in the end it wasn’t feasible because of the time and volunteer support needed.
Prior to April 2014, U-Nited for Autism was known as Autism Speaks, and 90 percent of its fundraising money went to the eponymous national organization. However, disagreements about the goals of the national organization—its classification of autism as a “disease” and its mission of researching a cure—caused the University’s chapter to break off and remake itself. The club’s advocacy and awareness mission remained the same, but its fundraising proceeds were given to the Autism Society of Minnesota, which provides local families with emotional and financial support to help raise children on the spectrum.
Looking ahead, Pavlick hopes another group of passionate students will fill in the hole that U-Nited for Autism left.