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Dan Kula is a first year student at the Larner College of Medicine at UVM. He is a leader of the Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disabilities Student Interest Group (ANDSIG).

Dan Kula is a first year student at the Larner College of Medicine at UVM. He is a leader of the Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disabilities Student Interest Group (ANDSIG).

My teeth chattered as I gazed at a (mostly) frozen Lake Champlain; a section of ice had been kindly removed so I could take a dip in the frigid water. I was standing at the waterfront in February with five classmates and more than 1,000 other participants waiting to take the Penguin Plunge, a fundraising event for Special Olympics Vermont.

Let me introduce you to Jake, a highly decorated Special Olympics athlete featured in the video titled “Meet Jake.” Jake has Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), a diagnosis that the Centers for Disease Control currently estimates to include 1 in 68 children and 1 in 42 boys. This number has increased in recent years, largely due to improved recognition and a broadening of the definition, including milder forms of ASD. April is National Autism Awareness Month, so allow me to share my experiences working with people with ASD and highlight the importance of community involvement.

Prior to medical school, I became familiar with ASDs as a swim instructor, elementary school tutor, and personal care assistant. The most striking thing I’ve learned from the children and young adults who I have worked with closely over the past seven years is that the “S” for spectrum in ASD should be bolded, italicized, and underlined. The struggles faced by those with ASDs are remarkably variable and highly specific to each individual, as are their strengths. Helping people with ASD to overcome their challenges and to rely on their strengths can help them to meaningful inclusion in society

I currently volunteer as a respite provider for a family that has two boys with ASD. When I asked their mother what I should write in my  she told me: “Acceptance is the key word I can offer you. Awareness is important, yet acceptance will take you further.” In order to show acceptance and support for autism and other disabilities, I invite my classmates and anyone interested to volunteer with me at the Special Olympics or College of Medicine Friends Offer Respite Time (COMFORT)!

A smooth slalom run for Jake.

A smooth slalom run for Jake.

Dr. Stephen Contompasis, a development-behavioral pediatrician, enjoys volunteering himself, and adds: “We certainly have increased awareness of autism spectrum disorders and our ability to diagnose early those children referred with concerns. It is certainly difficult for parents to have their child diagnosed, but I am so fortunate to have had so many positive experiences through Special Olympics Vermont where I can let parents know that many previously diagnosed patients of mine have benefited so greatly from the experiences provided.  Friendships, fitness, fun, families, and fulfillment!”

I’m looking forward to seeing some new faces join in the community outreach efforts! Visit Special Olympics Vermont today to get involved. If you are interested in learning more about COMFORT, send an email to uvmcomfort@gmail.com. I encourage others to share their own perspectives and experiences regarding Autism Spectrum Disorders, as well as additional outreach opportunities this April and beyond.

Dan Kula is a first year student at the Larner College of Medicine at UVM. He is a leader of the Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disabilities Student Interest Group (ANDSIG). He also volunteers for the community outreach program College of Medicine Friends Offer Respite Time (COMFORT).

Stephen Contompasis, MD, is a Development-Behavioral Pediatrician at the University of Vermont Children’s Hospital at the UVM Medical Center and Professor of Pediatrics in the Larner College of Medicine at UVM. He is Director of the Vermont Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental Disabilities (VT-LEND) program funded under the federal Autism Cares Act of 2014. He also serves as faculty co-advisor with Dr. Jeremiah Dickerson of the Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disabilities Student Interest Group (ANDSIG).

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