Autism Speaks Volumes

Alisa Askew isn’t fazed by other’s doings; she’s set on her own course.

No, she’s not interested in the pleasures of alcohol-filled day parties, night-long bar crawls, or late Sunday afternoon awakenings. Instead, she’s traded in her throwback Lebron James jersey, ripped jean shorts and fanny pack, opting for a more minimalistic look: bell-bottomed cut denim pants and a highlight-blue volunteer T-shirt, which I’m almost certain she got for free.

Rather than partake in Ohio University’s party culture, Askew’s days are consumed by her passion to help others. And though her withdrawn and enclosed temperament may blur people’s perception, she’s a leader, and one whose initiative is predicated on student’s awareness of the mental condition, autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Askew is the president of Autism Speaks U (ASU), a service chapter under the larger organization Autism Speaks. The organization was founded by Bob and Suzanne Wright in February 2005. Since its establishment, the organization has raised millions of dollars in donations to fund research and provide services for people on the autism spectrum and their families.

Autism Speaks’ success prompted the launch of college chapters under ASU in 2008. Askew recognized the organization’s aim to generate awareness through informational sessions and fundraisers. In 2015, she joined the Athens chapter to participate more fully in ASU’s efforts and to continue learning about the effects of ASD.

“I really love the cause,” Askew says. “I just wanted to learn more about autism because I really didn’t know that much about it. But knowing I’d have to deal with people [with autism], I figured this would be a good opportunity to learn more about it and [advocate] for it.”

Askew’s desire to help people with special needs was always an interest, but one that wasn’t exercised until her arrival at OU. Upon her enrollment, she made the move from Obetz, Ohio, as an undeclared major before transitioning to special education. However, after Askew completed an introductory course, one of her friends mentioned the communications sciences and disorders major. Askew jumped at the opportunity to continue working with special needs students and now hopes to become a speech therapist.

“I always had a sense that I wanted to work with special needs kids,” Askew says. “Helping people communicate is really important for anyone. I love it.”

Through Askew’s experiences in the organization, she learned more about the effects of autism and its relevance in America. Instances of ASD have increased exponentially in the last 15 years. Since 2000, autism has grown from affecting one in every 150 children in the U.S. to now one in every 68. It’s a growing issue in this country, and one that Askew feels hasn’t received its proper acknowledgement on campus.

“I feel like mental disorders aren’t openly expressed or talked about on campus as much as they should be,” Askew says. “I believe this is a problem because mental illnesses are so common, a lot more prevalent than people realize but no one is talking about it.”

She was inspired to become an advocate in the fight for autism awareness and, since joining the organization, she believes ASU is doing its part. Her level of passion for ASU is undetected through her feathery, soft voice and low-key demeanor. Instead, Askew’s zeal-filled ambitions are expressed through her actions, seemingly the crux of her leadership.

Whether she’s planning events like the ASU Bake Sale, Scavenger Hunt, or its annual “Walk Now for Autism Speaks” event, Askew’s maintained the principles behind the organization’s campaign, which has drawn in more members and recognition to ASU.

Though other organizations provide philanthropic work to serve people with autism, ASU stands as the only one solely dedicated to support people with the mental disorder. But despite its accomplishments, the chapter faced many challenges that threatened its establishment. Following the former president’s abrupt exit last semester, ASU was void of leadership and faced criticism from other campus organizations for its awareness and fundraising efforts.

In April 2017, a sorority – which Askew declined to name – called ASU a “hate group” across the surface of the Graffiti Wall. The sorority considered ASU’s initiative an attempt to cure or combat autism, rather than an aim to encourage people to “accept” the mental condition.

“I was in shock,” Askew says. “We’re not trying to just find a cure. That’s not what we stand for.”

The sorority wasn’t the only organization with disdain toward ASU. In fact, for years many organizations have spoken out against the chapter, as they feel its efforts aren’t geared to support people on the autism spectrum.

Kantake Noriko, president of the Appalachian Family Center for Autism and Disability Resources and Education (AF-CADRE), said her organization’s criticism is based on three principles: the exorbitant salaries of Autism Speaks’ executives but limited financial support for families, the demonization of the mental condition and the organization’s initiative to fund research for the development of vaccines to cure autism.

‘[They’re] treating autism like a demon that possess the child,” Noriko says. “It’s [from] parents’ perspective mostly, but [it lacks] the actual autistic individual’s perspective. To me, its lack of supporting individuals and families to favor fundraising Is the most problematic part.”

In the face of this criticism, however, Askew decided to run for ASU president – the only person in the organization to do so. In spring 2017, she was officially voted president, and her efforts to maintain the organization have superseded its member’s own expectations.

“I really wanted this organization to survive,” Askew says. “I think it’s something more people need to know about.”

Since stepping in as ASU’s president, Askew has felt ASU needed to shed its previous image and instead embrace new organizational methods. One of Askew’s biggest decisions was to reconstruct the organization’s mission. Now, ASU has added an aspect it has been criticized for lacking in the past: acceptance of the disorder.

Hannah Buell, a junior studying communication sciences and disorder and ASU’s vice president, believes ASU has not only gained stability in the aftermath of the leadership transition, but its campaign has also grown stronger since Askew’s stepped in.

“I think it’s been going well so far,” Buell says. “All of us on the exec board have been really excited to bring more involvement [to the organization]. I was the Vice President of the organization last year too, so I feel like I’ve been able to help out with [Askew’s] experience from working closely with the former president.”

Following the organization’s structural changes, ASU has been a success under Askew’s leadership. So far, ASU’s “Walk Now for Autism Speaks” generated $2,000 in donations, exceeding its $500 goal for the year. Not only does the money continue to provide funding for ASU’s initiative, but it also helps build the organization’s presence.

The organization has obtained moderate recognition because of the success of its events, but Askew feels ASU has room to expand. To do so, she plans to continue building on the organization’s foundation, while implementing more events to help educate and bring awareness to the Athens community — her top priority. And with more members joining ASU’s initiative, Askew feels ASU will encourage other organizations to engage in conversations regarding ASD and its effects.

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