Victory lights turn blue for autism awareness

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Posted: Thursday, April 3, 2014 12:26 am | Updated: 12:39 pm, Thu Apr 3, 2014.

When Hannah Robinson turned the Cathedral of Learning’s victory lights blue last year, she envisioned a movement broadcast beyond the bounds of the University.

The blue lights signified Pitt’s participation in the Light It Up Blue autism campaign, an annual nationwide movement to spread Autism awareness.

Robinson brought the campaign to Pitt last year with Light Pitt Up Blue, a night of festivities hosted by the service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega to raise awareness for autism spectrum disorders.

“I hope everyone driving by on the highway tonight looks over on that bridge where you can see the Cathedral, and they’ll see it blue,” Robinson, a senior communications and history and philosophy of science major, said, referring to a bridge that crosses the entrance to Schenley Park on Interstate 376.

The Cathedral lights flashed blue yesterday at 7:45 p.m. as Alpha Phi Omega and numerous other student organizations, nonprofits and more than 300 students enjoyed the night’s festivities on the William Pitt Union Lawn. The event featured three speakers who highlighted the struggles of and treatment plans for those with autism spectrum disorders.

Light It Up Blue is a nationwide initiative hosted by Autism Speaks, an autism science and advocacy organization that has local chapters throughout the United States. According to the Autism Speaks website, Light It Up Blue is a celebration of World Autism Awareness Day on April 2, on which major landmarks across the country are illuminated in blue.

Pittsburgh landmarks that were lit blue in honor of autism awareness yesterday included BNY Mellon, Consol Energy Center, Fifth Avenue Place and the Cathedral of Learning.

Robinson said the aesthetics of autism awareness programs drew her to the concept.

“I loved that it was something visual and impactful, and it was something that every Pitt student could see and be involved in, in a really accessible way,” Robinson said.

Masha Glukhovskaya and Subhana Chaudhri, co-chairs of Alpha Phi Omega’s Autism Committee, worked to recruit on-campus and local nonprofit organizations working in health fields to run informational booths for the event.

Chaudhri, a junior psychology major, said she hoped the information provided by the organizations would help people to become more understanding of the disorder.

Such organizations included Reaching 4 Autism Miracles — a nonprofit foundation that helps families who have children with autism, the Autism Treatment Network and Pittsburgh Early Autism Study.

Campus organizations such as Gluten Free My Campus, Best Buddies and Autism Speaks U also ran booths at the event.

Autism Speaks U, formally known as the Panther Autism Awareness Group, had a booth at the event to promote their fundraising efforts to become a nationally recognized chapter of Autism Speaks. The group is in a provisional stage, but it still collaborates with other university chapters to fundraise around the U.S. for Autism Speaks.

Heidi Pappert, president of Autism Speaks U, said the group collaborated with Alpha Phi Omega to expand the group’s reach because both organizations worked to promote awareness for the same issues.

“Our cause is the same,” Pappert, a junior studying speech language pathology, said. “It would be better if we joined forces because [Light Pitt Up Blue] would be bigger. We would get more money. We could do more events.”

Glukhovskaya, a junior studying communication science and disorders, said they tied the event to student organizations that cover a number of different issues, such as Gluten Free My Campus, which discussed how diets and the dietary profession work in respect to autism.

“We picked some organizations we thought students could relate to,” Glukhovskaya said.

Speakers at the event included Rob Morasco, a director at Sodexo Education USA.

Morasco founded Reaching 4 Autism Miracles, a small nonprofit that provides financial and emotional support to families with children who have recently been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.

He said his son’s diagnosis with a spectrum disorder inspired him to create the nonprofit in 2010.

“The bottom line is we love our son so much, we wouldn’t change anything about him,” Morasco said. “But going through the years and the stress of what we went through — and still do, in a lot of ways — has taught us that it’s not easy.”

Morasco said anyone, rich or poor, who had a family member diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder needs help and support. He also said the organization intends to create a better understanding of spectrum disorders.

To illustrate his point, Morasco told a story about bringing his son on a cruise when he was first diagnosed with autism. Morasco was holding his son during a safety demonstration when an attendant tapped him on the shoulder and told him to control his son.

“I held him out and said, ‘Do you want to give it a shot?’” Morasco said.

Morasco said he hopes the world will eventually develop a culture of support around spectrum disorders.

Kylie Charney, a junior studying nursing, was inspired to attend the event by her brother who has autism.

“I do usually do the Walk for Autism every year, but [Light Pitt Up Blue] is something I can do here ... to bring awareness to autism,” Charney said.

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