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Turning Autism Awareness into Action

Policymakers, parent advocates and educators came together at a recent Kean University forum to discuss supporting students on the autism spectrum from pre-K through higher education and beyond.

“Today and every day we must highlight the need to support people with autism so they can lead full and meaningful lives,” Kean President Lamont O. Repollet, Ed.D., said in his opening remarks. “Society would be a better place for all of us if we all learned to accept, appreciate and accommodate one other’s needs.”

The theme of the panel discussion was Turning Awareness into Action with a focus on creating a continuum of services for students from pre-K through postsecondary education. New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney participated along with Barbara Ridener, Ph.D., dean of Kean’s College of Education, and two parents of children with autism, Kean Associate Vice President for Employee Relations Kenneth Green, and Kean undergraduate marketing student Ashley Tufuga, who has a son and daughter on the autism spectrum.

Sen. Sweeney discussed legislation he has sponsored to help people with disabilities throughout the course of his career, inspired by his experience as the father of a child with special needs.

“A desire to improve New Jersey’s special education services is what initially inspired me to get involved in politics, and all these years later it continues to be a driving force behind my legislative priorities,” Sweeney said. “I am a strong believer that all spaces should be accessible to all people, and especially the I/DD community. It gives me an immense sense of hope for the future to see so many universities taking steps, like Kean has, to make their campuses accessible and give these students a chance to further their education.”

To view the panel discussion, visit kean.edu/autism-awareness-panel.

Repollet thanked the panelists for contributing to a greater understanding and improved outcomes for people with autism by sharing their knowledge and personal stories.

“Senate President Steve Sweeney is a tireless advocate for children and adults with special needs across this great state,” he said. “His expertise, experience and legislative leadership are vitally important as we work to build a pre-K to bachelor’s degree pipeline for New Jersey students with autism and other developmental disabilities.”

Kean also joined the Light It Up Blue campaign, turning the lights blue on the Union campus, in recognition of World Autism Awareness Day on April 2.

Tufuga, who is a member of the Kean President’s Advisory Council, said she quit her job to focus on her daughter’s therapy when the child was diagnosed with autism at age two. She now is a parent advocate for children with autism.

“Autism is not a problem; it’s a lifestyle,” Tufuga said. “It’s the lack of understanding that causes bias in the workforce and in classrooms.”

With 1 in 32 children in New Jersey diagnosed on the spectrum, Kean, as a major producer of K-12 educators, plays a key role in preparing future classroom teachers to teach children with disabilities.

“We have to create learning communities where all individuals are safe and valued,” Ridener said. “It is incumbent on us to recognize individuals’ strengths, be able to support them to the best of their ability, and mitigate areas that might impede their success.”

To that end, several new initiatives are underway at Kean, including a classroom for children with autism in the University’s Child Care and Development Center on campus.

“We are looking for an opportunity for our teachers and our future teachers to participate in this from the ground up,” Ridener said, adding that the classroom would provide specialists and individual aides to help children thrive.

At the higher education level, Repollet said there are plans for a program that would bring high-functioning autistic students to Kean to work and take courses, and earn certification in various skills.

“At Kean, we can continue to extend this conversation, to put it into action and not just talk about it,” Repollet said.