Members of the Advocates for Autism organization

College can sometimes be difficult to navigate for people on the autism spectrum. 

To help bridge this gap, student organization Advocates for Autism seeks to provide resources for students on the spectrum and to educate the UT community at large.

Advocates for Autism was founded in 2016 by Brianna Mason, graduate student in elementary education, and Terrell Broady, Jr., graduate in business administration. Mason said that the organization was rooted in their personal passions.

“As a student educator, I have worked closely with students on the autism spectrum. I have always had a heart for these individuals and also want the world to be a better place for them,” Mason said. “The other co-founder, Terrell, has a younger sister with autism, and she was the inspiration for starting this organization.”

Mason and Broady now serve as the organization’s co-presidents, organizing awareness and fundraising events in coordination with their community partner, Autism Site Knoxville (ASK).

ASK is a grassroots non-profit devoted to creating “a virtual community of families affected by autism spectrum disorders,” according to its website. Together, the organizations host events such as the annual Autism Family Day at Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies. The museum opens early, reduces stimuli like background music and provides a quiet room to allow individuals with autism to more fully enjoy the aquarium.

Advocates for Autism also hosts awareness-raising and inclusive events, including a Fall Fest, which featured a bake sale, petting zoo, square dancing and pumpkin decorating last year.

“Along with those opportunities, we hold fundraising events to donate funds to local organizations that assist individuals with autism and families,” Mason said.

Among those fundraising events is an annual All in for Autism 5K Run/Walk. This year, the run will take place on Ped Walkway on April 7. Registration costs $20 to $30 and can be secured via Eventbrite.

Advocates for Autism Vice President Ciara Westbrook, junior in political science, said that the organization’s primary goal is education. 

“Advocates for Autism plays such an integral role on campus. There are many people that do not know about autism or do not know much about autism. We work together to change that,” Westbrook said. “On the other hand, there are many people that do know about autism … but they’re unsure (of) how to advocate for them or how to help spread awareness or donate. We help to provide that for campus and the Knoxville community.”

With bi-monthly meetings and a focus on inclusivity, Advocates for Autism also functions as a community.

“It is most importantly a place where some of our members with autism have a voice and have an environment where they are understood and included,” Westbrook said. “Every member feels welcome to provide their input or ideas that they would like to come into play. (Advocates for Autism) has become more than just another organization on campus. (It) feels like a family, a family dedicated to advocating for autism.”

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