Panther Autism Awareness Group strives to gain recognition from national organization

By Joelle Smith / Staff Writer

Kristen Mowery, the founder of the Panther Autism Awareness Group, grew up with an autistic younger brother and witnessed his challenges each day. This experience influenced her during her time at Pitt, prompting her to reach out to those who know someone affected by the disorder.

“I know a lot of people on Pitt’s campus also may have autism, and they have the same struggles that my brother has gone through,” Mowery, a psychology major who graduated last semester, said. “I really just wanted to start a group on campus that would allow our student body to advocate for those people.”

Since its creation in 2012, The Panther Autism Awareness Group has undertaken a mission to expand its reach beyond campus. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, autism affects one in 88 children in America. As the autism awareness movement is still in its infancy, Mowery knew the Pitt community needed to get involved. Mowery launched The Panther Autism Awareness Group in spring 2012 with about 10 members, a number that has since grown to 15. With a goal of promoting autism awareness, Pitt’s group is vying for recognition as an official chapter from Autism Speaks U, a national autism science and advocacy organization.

A student chapter must acquire at least 25 members, secure a faculty advisor and develop a plan of goals to become an official Autism Speaks U chapter to represent the national organization’s cause. Other requirements include the hosting of a general interest meeting and a commitment to a fundraising goal of between $1,500 and $3,000 for its first semester.

According to Heidi Pappert, the Pitt group’s president-elect and a junior majoring in speech language pathology, Pitt’s chapter needs about 10 new members to become recognized by the Pittsburgh chapter of Autism Speaks. The group also needs to raise about $2000 and submit campaign ideas to Autism Speaks for their group. This semester, the group meets once a month on Wednesdays.

As of last month, roughly 60 universities achieved official Autism Speaks U chapter status. Nine of these chapters are based at Pennsylvania universities, including Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Slippery Rock University, Gettysburg College, St. Joseph’s University and West Chester University. 

The Panther Autism Awareness Group has been pushing to join these other universities in official chapter status. 

The group’s campaigns have included inviting staff members from Pitt’s School of Education to speak about the disorder around campus. In addition, group members managed tables in Litchfield Towers, created T-shirts and distributed flyers to promote the group.

The group also elected an executive board during its first year, and Mowery said she’s thrilled with the group’s progress.

“I think they’ve done awesome things with the [group]. Things I wouldn’t have even thought to do, myself.”

Ben Weiner, the group’s secretary and a sophomore neuroscience major, said he believes recognition from Autism Speaks will validate the group’s role within the community. 

Weiner said acknowledgment from Autism Speaks would publicize the organization, bring more legitimacy to the group and provide funding and further opportunities for guest speakers.

With a mission in mind, Pappert is looking to rally more members and fundraise for Autism Speaks.

Pappert hopes to achieve these goals at a carnival in April, through which the Panther Autism Awareness Group would donate the proceeds to Autism Speaks. The group would tailor the event to accommodate children with and without disabilities. 

The festivities would feature a raffle, moon bounce and various booths providing activities for the children. Pappert said prospective locations include Schenley Plaza and the Petersen Sports Complex, depending on rental costs. 

The carnival will also provide students, Weiner said, with the opportunity to have a glimpse at what a life with autism is like.

“We’re hoping to have a sensory table for kids and students to feel what its like to live a day with autism,” he said.

 Last fall, the group hosted the Autism Awareness Ball for a night of dancing on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013 at the O’Hara Student Center, but Weiner said attendance was stunted because the ball was scheduled on the same day as the Pitt vs. Notre Dame football game.

 A bake sale, which would advertise the group and raise funds for its pursuits, is also on the group’s agenda. 

Pappert said the group also plans to participate in and potentially volunteer at the Autism Walk for Autism Speaks in Pittsburgh this June at Heinz Field. An exact date for the walk is to be determined.  

The board’s ambition and enthusiasm is contagious.

Ryan Corbo, a sophomore majoring in molecular biology, enjoys participating in the group’s community outreach initiatives.

Inspired by a cousin with autism, Corbo began helping his aunt, who is a behavioralist, administer applied behavioral analysis therapy. Since his aunt works privately, Corbo joined her on trips to patient’s homes.

The therapy involved rigidly structured, one-on-one development of verbal and motor skills, Corbo explained.

“It was probably the most difficult and rewarding thing I’ve ever done. It was really, really cool,” Corbo said.

With a background in the challenges associated with autism, Corbo joined Panther Autism Awareness Group at the beginning of the school year.

He especially enjoys the group’s trips to the Children’s Institute of Pittsburgh, a nonprofit organization based in Shadyside that provides support and services for children with special needs and their families. Visits to the institute are a monthly requirement for group members, during which members of the group interact with the children. 

“[The children] are so cute,” Corbo said. “They love it, they love seeing people — they love talking to people.