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Mercyhurst celebrates pioneering program during Autism Awareness Month

Monday, March 31, 2014

Mercyhurst University, a pioneer in educating students on the autism spectrum, will commemorate National Autism Awareness Month on both its Erie and North East campuses during April.

On Wednesday, April 2, the public is invited to campus at 8 p.m. when one of Erie’s iconic landmarks – Mercyhurst’s O’Neil Tower – will be bathed in a blue light as the university joins with the international community in commemorating the United Nations-sanctioned World Autism Awareness Day.

Similar observances have been planned at famous buildings around the world, including the Eiffel Tower (Paris), the Great Pyramid (Giza, Egypt) and Christ the Redeemer statue (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil), as well as hotels, sporting venues, concert halls, museums, bridges and retail stores.    

Prior to the public event, the Asperger Initiative at Mercyhurst (AIM), a part of the university’s Learning Differences Program, will host an awards dinner in the Faculty Dining Room of Egan Hall from 6:30 to 8 p.m. to celebrate the 25 students in its program, their families, mentors and those individuals who have contributed to AIM’s success. AIM was founded in 2008 to meet the unique needs of the growing population of college students diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome and Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Award recipients include faculty members Kenneth Schiff, Ph.D., Gerald Tobin, Ph.D., Nick Lang, Ph.D. and administrators Sheila Coon and Sharon Sisco.  Additionally, several AIM students will be recognized for their contributions to the program’s success.   

“We are proud that in just 10 short years, our AIM program has been rated as one of the top autism support programs in America,” said Dianne Rogers, director of the Learning Differences Program at Mercyhurst. “This year, to celebrate Autism Awareness Month, we wanted to recognize individuals connected to the Mercyhurst family who have played key roles in the success of this program.”

During the day, Parkhurst Dining Services, the university’s food service provider, will feature a special blue-themed lunch in the cafeteria. Also, Paulina Wielandt and Kristen Robson , AIM graduate assistants, will present a program about understanding the needs of students with autism to a group of students and staff at St. Gregory School in North East. The opportunity was coordinated by Mercyhurst alumna Katelynn Parmelee, who is a teacher at the school.   

On Monday, April 14, the North East Learning Differences and OASIS programs will host a free, public presentation by Tom Kitchen, assistant professor of special education on the Erie campus and board certified behavior analyst. Kitchen will lecture on autism spectrum disorders including their characteristics, diagnosis and treatment at 7 p.m. in the Ridge Library Great Room at North East.

Students in the OASIS (Opportunities and Advancement for Students with Intellectual Disabilities for Self-Determination) program will be baking festive puzzle piece cookies for the event, a nod to the national symbol for autism awareness. The puzzle piece symbol reflects the mystery and complexity of autism spectrum disorders.

OASIS, a one-year, proficiency-based program, was founded in 2008 to provide students with intellectual disabilities age 18 and older the opportunity to take culinary and hospitality courses alongside North East students. The unique program gives students the ability to learn job skills as well as connect with their peers who have similar interests and experience. OASIS is an initiative of the newly formed Mercyhurst Institute for Applied Behavioral Studies, which launched in October 2013.

OASIS students will represent the program at the Annual Walk for Autism, presented by the Autism Society of Northwestern Pennsylvania, on April 26 at Presque Isle State Park. The walk, now in its 13th year, aims to increase awareness of autism, fund projects and activities for individuals with autism in our community and to support national research.

“It has always been part of our mission at Mercyhurst North East to ensure that individuals with disabilities have an equal opportunity to participate in programs and activities offered at the university,” said Nicole Swan, learning differences coordinator at Mercyhurst North East. “We understand that no two students with an autism diagnosis are the same; each student comes to us with a unique set of talents, interests, skills and barriers.”