Three years ago, a Manhattan College senior had a vision of bringing an Autism Speaks chapter to campus. Today, it is a thriving club with active members and a growing campus presence.
“I thought it was important to shed light on autism and for our school to be a part of a cause that does so much good for people,” Becca Cook, the founder of the campus’s club, said.
“The reality is that many people are ill-informed about autism, I wanted to open people’s eyes to what it is really like,” the 2013 MC graduate said.
Many people are not knowledgeable with what the disorder is, nor are they aware of how common the disorder is today.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) website, autism spectrum disorder is a complex brain disorder that affects a person’s social interactions, as well as his or her verbal and nonverbal communication.
The CDC has approximated that 1 in 68 American children are on the autism spectrum. Furthermore, the CDC states that the rate of the disorder has increased, as of 2012, by 78 percent since 2007.
This makes it the “fastest-growing serious developmental disability in the U.S.,” according to the CDC.
Because of this substantial increase in the amount of cases of autism, autism awareness is therefore extremely important and is why Cook wanted to bring the Autism Speaks organization to MC.
“The cause and the disorder are near to my heart. I have a few family members on the spectrum and I felt it was important to bring awareness about autism to our community because it is such a prevalent disorder that people come in contact with each and every day,” Cook said.
A senior at the time, Cook needed to pass the presidency onto someone else who was equally as passionate to the cause, and luckily she was able to find just the person in Jennifer McNulty.
“When she gave it [the presidency] to me, it was like she was giving me her baby because that was the first year it was on campus,” McNulty, a junior education major and current president, said. “At first it was really challenging and I was kind of thrown into a new thing. Being a sophomore I was like, ‘Oh, I have to go through Student Activities, oh, wait, what?’ I was just so confused. But now I’m so happy I did it.”
A seasoned president at this point, McNulty has big plans for the club this year, including a walk for autism on Jones Beach on Oct. 5, participating in Safe Halloween, and various other fundraisers and awareness events.
“I just want more people to get to know what autism is and what Autism Speaks does as a club,” McNulty said.
McNulty also plans on bringing back popular autism awareness events that she put on last year as well.
“We’re probably going to do the candy cane sale again. We get blueberry candy canes, and they’re really good too, and we put autism facts on them and give them to everyone in the library studying for finals week,” McNulty said.
One of the most well known events on campus, however, is the lighting of the Quad with blue candles.
“We light up the Quad blue with the puzzle piece and everything. I’m very excited for that this year, that’s one of my favorite events in the entire world.”
When Cook graduated, she knew she was passing on her baby to a more than capable successor.
“I think I left the club in amazing hands. Jen has such a passion for the cause, which is exactly what this club needs in order to thrive,” Cook said. “I have no doubt that it will only keep growing from here.”
McNulty certainly is planning on expanding the club, as she has a major goal in creating a community outreach program for students who have autism on campus.
“It’s going to take a lot of work, because they can’t really give us the files on that, which is perfectly fine, obviously that’s none of my business,” McNulty said. “But I would just love for all of us to be a community. I feel like our campus is so communal-based. I love that! But I want the kids who have autism to feel welcome too.”
McNulty and Cook both believe that the point of the club should be about raising awareness for autism.
“When we were at the Activities Fair, a lot of people asked us ‘What is autism?’ And I told them it’s a developmental social disability where mentally they could be really smart, but socially they could be awkward or they could just not understand the norms that we would understand,” McNulty said.
While the club also raises money to donate towards the research of this disorder, they are making it a main goal to increase the awareness of autism on the MC campus.
“I think when I started, my goal was to raise a significant amount of money for the organization. As I continued, I realized that it was more important to reach as many people as possible to get them informed. If that led to donations, great, and if not, that’s great too, because they were still learning something about autism they may not have known before,” Cook said.
“I just really, by the time I graduate, want to raise awareness on campus. Just to make everyone feel like they’re on the same level,” McNulty said.
The club meets every Tuesday at 3:30 p.m. in the Kelly Commons and everyone is welcome.