Hurst celebrates Autism Appreciation

Marina Boyle, Editor-in-chief

Mercyhurst is a special place for students on the spectrum, thanks largely to the nationally renowned Autism Initiative at Mercyhurst, or the AIM Program. Throughout the month of April, the program and university will celebrate Autism Awareness, Acceptance and Appreciation Month (formerly Autism Awareness Month), with a host of fun and educational activities for neurotypical and neurodiverse students alike.

April 7 marked World Autism Awareness Day, when AIM students and staff stood in the Grotto Commons dining hall, distributing information and serving blue-colored desserts.

In the afternoon, students enjoyed an hour-long virtual meeting with Dr. Temple Grandin, perhaps the most famous living person with autism, and a long-time friend of the AIM Program.

Senior Political Science and Psychology major Ben VanHook was honored to attend.

“The Temple Grandin event was very exciting because it was so cool to hear the perspective of someone so prestigious. I asked a question about how schools can improve the quality of ‘special education and she replied that schools must also target an individual’s tangible skills rather than academics alone,” VanHook said.

Interestingly, this is what three of the four AISE domains of the AIM program focus on – not just academics, but also independence, social skills and emotional wellness.

As part of the month’s celebrations, Grandin will also speak to the Mercyhurst faculty on April 20 to discuss teaching students with autism.

During the month of April, the AIM Program is also offering many other ways to observe the month and to celebrate. On World Autism Awareness Day, the O’Neil Tower of Old Main was basked in blue light to glow especially for autism awareness. The program has also begun an “I Am AIM” campaign which will feature short videos from people that either work in the program, are in the program or support the AIM program in some way, to create awareness and recognition. The AIM Program encourages people to make their own videos and send them in.

During the month of April AIM has invited the leaders of major companies to meet virtually with students to discuss internship and employment opportunities. Besides Wells Fargo, which is the main sponsor of the event, sessions are scheduled with Microsoft, the Office of Disability Employment Policy and others. On April 15, AIM students will meet virtually with former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge to discuss neurodiversity and employment.

As well as being a friend of Mercyhurst University, Tom Ridge is currently the Chairman of the National Organization on Disability.

AIM director Brad McGarry and other AIM staff were also invited to join leaders from around the world at a virtual celebration of World Autism Awareness Day. The theme was “Inclusion in the Workplace: Challenges and Opportunities in a Post-Pandemic World,” and featured moderated panel discussions with individuals on the autism spectrum who have themselves experienced challenges and opportunities in the employment market.

Finally, students in the AIM Program are painting rocks with positive messages on the back of them. The goal is to spread beauty and positivity on the campus. Anyone who might like to join is encouraged to do this activity and put their rocks out on the University campus.

This pandemic year has been challenging for all, especially the AIM Program. While students in the program have had the same opportunities to go beyond the gates, they are bringing appreciation to campus more than ever this year. AIM is still undeterred and glowing as brightly as the Old Main tower, this month and beyond.