Serena Hua, undergraduate at UCSD studying Neuroscience and Psychology, founder and president of Awareness and Action for Autism
My purpose in attending the IMFAR Community Conference was anything but to solely learn about the latest research on autism. That is not to say, however, that I was not guilty of clinging to the edge of my seat desperately absorbing all the mind blowing information that was being presented to me and the sea of at least 200 or so parents, doctors, researchers and teachers. Captivated I was, despite being an undergraduate here at UCSD where these kinds of exciting research surround you each and every day, I didn’t see the conference as the sole opportunity for me to dive into all that was going on in the science hemisphere of the ASD world. I was here for other reasons.
The crowd of attendees, consisting of mostly parents and professionals that work with individuals on the spectrum were, on the other hand, all here for the research and the new knowledge. I couldn’t help but notice how enthralled they were to be there, to meet other parents and, most importantly, to learn about how dedicated individuals like themselves were playing their own part in this battle against autism. They sat hour after hour, listened to talk after talk, bombarded the speakers with questions one after the other – a feat us college kids won’t even dream of accomplishing. They made every minute of this conference worth their time, ensuring that their questions were answered or at least acknowledged with a ‘good question!’ kind of response. Sitting there next to a grandparent of an ASD kid and cracking up over the diverse panel of absolutely brilliant young adults with Asperger’s, or “Aspies” as they call themselves, I found myself savoring every second of the conference.
What I remember most from the day was when Stephen Shore and John Elder Robison spoke during one of the breakout sessions about their experiences as individuals with ASD. As they were sharing their quirks and insights on the disorder, I turned to look at everyone around me, and smiled to myself. I couldn’t pinpoint why, but at that moment, I was so happy to be where I was. To me, these were people who stood for the hope that someday my own six-year-old cousin could have his own family, lead his own life, and stand for what he believed in. I felt like I wanted to shout that to the world, and I wondered if those around me were feeling the same way.
Last year, I started the Awareness and Action for Autism organization, which aims to find opportunities for college students to help out in the ASD community. My organization stemmed from the feeling of helplessness when it came to helping my autistic cousin; away from home, I could not do anything significant to support him and his family at a time when they needed support the most – and that killed me. This was my effort to do my part. Starting this club was my effort to inform those who didn’t know a thing about autism – raising awareness. I also wanted to channel other students’ desires to help into producing practical outcomes, like our Peer Mentoring Program and Journal Clubs, with goals to ultimately benefit those with ASD – that is the action part. If I couldn’t directly help my cousin, the least I could do was to try to help others.
In the end, the real reason I attended the conference was the opportunity to be in that sea of 200 passionate family members and advocates – psychologists and teachers and grandparents and the ASD people themselves. The IMFAR Community Conference was, for me, a chance to be around those who understood and cared about everything autism; it was an chance for me to be recharged and re-inspired to continue doing what I had set out on doing all along: to play my part in the ASD community.