Autism is the fastest growing development disability in the United States, with an annual 10-17 percent increase according to the Center for Autism. Yet it is continuously one of the most stereotyped and ill-informed mental illness throughout the country. Kaity Meagher and the rest of her executive board is hoping to change this culture at Marist College by founding their own Autism Speaks U chapter.
“Autism Speaks U is a branch organization off of Autism Speaks, which advocates, educates, and raises funds for autism research,” says Meagher, president and founder of the Marist chapter. “Autism Speaks U is different because it is a program specifically for colleges and universities across the country.”
Meagher, a junior psychology and special education major at Marist, was inspired to start this chapter following the tragic death of her lifelong friend Sydne Jacoby in November of 2011. Jacoby was a student at the University of Massachusetts and board member on their Autism Speaks U chapter.
“After a few months I knew that with her passion and mine, forming a chapter here was what I knew I wanted to do then more than ever before,” says Meagher.
Meagher started the process of getting support by talking with family, friends, faculty members at Marist and anyone else who could give her direction in this new journey. She approached the Education department, office of Special Services, Student Government Association and Student Activities, finding growing support all along the way. Soon enough she had a 12 person executive board, 500 plus signatures on a petition and 62 people interested in being a part of a this new organization.
“Kaity is really the one to thank for starting the club at Marist,” says Brianna Carey, executive board member. “She went around to different education classes and asked if anyone would be interested in being involved. From there, the long process with student government and college activities began.”
This process wrapped up in late November 2013 with Meagher receiving approval from the Student Government Association to officially hold meetings in the spring of 2014.
“I honestly was, and still am, amazed by the amount of support that we have received and that we are continuing to receive,” says Meagher.
Autism Speaks U was officially launched in 2008 and is a part of its parent organization Autism Speaks, which was founded in 2005 by Bob and Suzanne Wright, grandparents of a child with autism. Since their inaugural event in 2006 at the Penn State University, Autism Speaks U has raised over 1 million dollars, according to the Autism Speaks U website.
While the majority of students who are drawn to this program are special education or psychology majors such as Meagher, for some there is a much more personal relationship with Autism.
“I have a connection with Autism from my own brother John was diagnosed at the age of three,” says Caroline Sullivan an executive board member. “There was no hesitation on my part in terms of wanting to help Kaity with the process of forming this club on campus.”
It is with this sort of dedication and determination combined with the need to continue to help and advocate for those who are not able to do so themselves which has lead to the success of the Autism Speaks U organization at a national level.
Even before the organization was officially recognized at Marist, Meagher and her executive board was hard at work planning different possible events for the spring. All of them, centered around the main goal of the organization: raising awareness and better educating students at Marist about autism.
The two major events planned for the spring semester so far are Light it up Blue on April 2nd, which is autism awareness day, and a Color Run/Walk across campus.
The Light it Up Blue event is an event Meagher has done before, but never with an Autism Speaks U chapter.
“We have done this event before here, lighting up the Rotunda blue, but I would really like to make this year’s event bigger and better than before,” says Meagher.
The second event is one in which Meagher is most looking forward to.
“The second major event we want to hold here is Marist’s first ever Color Run/Walk,” says Meagher. “I’m picturing it being all different shades of blue powder being thrown at participants, which would obviously make us as a chapter stand out.”
Recruitment Chair Jamie Landry also looks toward huge factor for the success of this organization and hopes to have different programs centered around gaining involvement.
“I hope to have a huge program at the beginning of next semester to let people know what the club is all about,” says Landry.
With the road ahead looking promising Meagher is nothing but excited to continue to grow this organization on the Marist campus.
“We want nothing more than to be a success on this campus, and to leave a lasting legacy for years to come,”says Meagher.