According to a recent survey by the U.S. Center for Disease Control, one in 47 children in the state of Utah are autistic — marking the highest rate for autism among children in the nation. This developmental disorder is quickly becoming an epidemic, yet public support for and a general social understanding of the disease is stagnant.
Aiming to change this, at least on the local level, one student will culminate his studies at SUU this semester in an EDGE (Education Designed to Give Experience) capstone project that is responsible for Cedar City’s and Southern Utah University’s inaugural Autism Awareness Week this April 1-6.
Early on in his studies, Chris Booth, a senior history major, knew he wanted to use the EDGE program, requiring students to gain real-world experience beyond their classroom studies, to make an impact in his community and for his family. The father of an autistic child, Booth has long grappled with the challenges and roadblocks his daughter and his family face simply because the community is largely uneducated about the increasingly common disease. He has spent the past two years working with University, city and public health officials and educators to make Autism Awareness Week a reality.
Of his motivation, Booth explained, “There is a growing number of autism cases but a decreasing amount of support for those who struggle with it. This week is a chance for people to learn that being autistic doesn’t mean you’re weird, it just means you fight a different battle.”
In the most visible of his efforts, Booth will cover the town in blue for the week to help build autism awareness. At SUU, this means the lampposts will shine blue; and on Cedar City’s Main Street and in the Main Street Park, the trees will be wrapped in blue ribbon.
Booth has also joined efforts with Cedar City Mayor Joe Burgess who has declared April 2 as Autism Awareness Day in Cedar City, an effort that, according to Booth, is long overdue.
“There is a lack of funding and support in southern Utah for this epidemic and my hope is that it will become an annual event so that when kids like my daughter grow up there will be more resources for them.”
Booth has also planned an autism awareness symposium on Tuesday, April 2, in concert with World Autism Day. The symposium will feature Bob Wasden with the Southwest Educational Development Center; Chad Flether, an occupational therapist; Sue Harris, a speech therapist; and Cyndi Wright, SUU nutrition professor. The panel will also host two parents whose children suffer from autism and two SUU students with Asperger’s, a form of autism.
“This gathering isn’t just for those directly impacted with a form of autism,” explained Booth. “It will also be a chance for others to learn how to empathize with those who suffer with autism or parents of autistic children.”
The symposium, which is free and open to the general public, begins at 6 p.m. in the Sterling Church Auditorium. Donations will be accepted to help fund scholarships for children with autism.
In support of Booth and in a continuing effort to build autism awareness, the SUU softball team will host an Autism Awareness game on April 26 at 2 p.m. against Northern Colorado.
The annual Southern Utah Autism Conference will also be hosted at Canyon View High School on Saturday, April 27, sponsored by the Southwest Education Development Center and the Utah State Office of Education. Online registration forms for the conference are available at www.sedc.k12.ut.us.