Student group lend helping hand to autism community

In the U.S., autism affects 1 in 68 children. At USF, students are partnering with a community group to provide training and direct assistance to students and families in the Tampa Bay area affected by autism. 

The Center for Autism and Related Disorders (CARD) is a community-based organization at USF that offers information and support to those living with this disorder. While raising awareness, the group partners with USF CARD Autism Champions, the student arm of the center, to participate in service projects and fundraisers to benefit people with disabilities.

Christine Rover, the adviser for CARD, said not many people are as aware as they should be of the considerable number of individuals who are affected by autism.

“People with autism are around them every day. They’re in our community, they’re in our schools, they’re students on our campus,” Rover said. “And they have gifts and talents and people really need to see them as people.”

While the center is a nationwide organization, the group at USF serves 14 counties in the area and over 4,000 families in Florida. CARD Autism Champions participated in numerous volunteer activities this past summer, including Surfers For Autism in St. Petersburg. They also visited local businesses such as AMC and the Florida Aquarium that want to be more autism-friendly and help train employees to be sensitive to autistic individuals. 

“Unfortunately there is a huge (autistic) community and a lot of people kind of shut it out,” said Stephanie Taylor, a senior majoring in speech pathology and co-president of the CARD Champions. “I would like people to understand the spectrum a little more.” 

The student group will host a disability fair Oct. 4, and the festival will feature face painting and games with children. The event draws approximately 2,000 individuals from the community, and while it’s not autism-specific, it does attract in a large number of autistic children and their families. CARD also partners with the USF College of Public Health, College of Education and other organizations across campus to spread awareness.

“We’re here to serve families,” said Daianna Apolito, a representative at the CARD resource office. 

Apolito also said CARD at USF is important because it offers a central location that is convenient for people.

CARD is holding its Annual Health & Wellness Symposium Nov. 1, and the CARD Champions will be at Kaleisia Tea Lounge on Oct. 3 to play board games with autistic children.

“We’re looking forward to USF students getting involved,” Taylor said. “I want to do a lot more hands-on (activities), that way we can get more one-on-one.” 

Despite CARD’s primary intentions, Rover believes the project hugely benefits even those who are not personally affected by autism.

“As students, they really have the opportunities in future careers and community involvement to interact with people with autism spectrum disorder,” Rover said. “So if they interact while they’re still on campus, if they learn the facts about this disability, they really then become global citizens.”