April is Autism Awareness Month, which means there are many opportunities for students to get involved and volunteer. One main advocate for the month is the Burkhart Center for Autism at Texas Tech, which works with autistic students and young adults.
Autism is believed to be a genetic disorder, affecting approximately one in 54 children in the U.S. as of 2020, according to the Center for Disease Control. Autism affects all ethnic and socioeconomic groups and can be detected in children as young as two years old.
The Burkhart Center on the Tech campus has worked with autistic individuals and their families since it opened in 2005. The center’s mission is “to increase the quality of life for individuals with autism and their families by providing services, preparing educators and conducting research,” according to the Burkhart Center website.
“Mr. and Mrs. Burkhart, the founders of the Burkhart Center, had an autistic grandson and saw a lack of education and information at the time about autism spectrum disorder,” Janice Magness, the interim co-director of the Burkhart Center and the director of the center’s Transition Academy, said. “They wanted parents of children with autism to have access to free lectures and education which the center provides.”
The Burkhart Center offers many programs such as the Transition Academy, which helps graduated young adults build skills and enter into the workforce, the CASE (Connections for Academic Success and Employment) program, which offers mentorships and internship opportunities, an outpatient clinic and a mobile outreach clinic, Magness said.
The biggest event the Burkhart Center hosts for Autism Awareness Month is the annual walk for autism awareness. This year’s walk is virtual due to COVID-19 and is a two-day event on April 24 and 25.
The first day of the event includes a drive-through walk kit pickup party with music, special guests, T-shirts and goodies. The second day will be when the walk itself is being hosted virtually, according to the center’s website.
“We’re encouraging people to walk in the community or in their neighborhoods wearing their shirts since we can’t have a walk together as we have in years past,” Magness said.
Many local businesses and Tech students organizations usually participate in and volunteer for the walk when it is hosted in person to raise awareness of autism and celebrate those with autism and those around them.
“I participated in the walk a few years ago before COVID-19 hit, and it was a really great experience,” Benjamin Marks, a senior education major from Waco, said. “It’s so amazing to see the community come together to support our peers.”
In addition to the virtual walk, the Burkhart Center will also be lit up with blue lights at night for the month of April in honor of Autism Awareness Month, Magness said.
Students are also able to get involved in support of the month through the various programs hosted by the Burkhart Center.
“Every month we host a parent’s night out where we watch over their children with autism and their siblings for a few hours for free to give parents a date night,” Magness said. “It’s become very popular, and students are always welcome to volunteer to help with the night.”
Although more information and education about autism has become available over the years, it is still important to spread awareness and celebrate the month,” Ava Loren, a sophomore dance major from Sugar Land, said.
“In my opinion, autism doesn’t make anyone less than or really all that different when it comes down to it,” Loren said. “I think Autism Awareness Month is important because there shouldn’t be a stigma around the topic, we should support one another no matter what.”