Freshman organizes walkathon for autism

A Stanford freshman has organized the University’s inaugural Walk Now for Autism Speaks walkathon, an event that will take place at the Dish on May 4.

Spencer Savitz ’17, who has organized similar events since 2008 and raised $850,000 in the process, partnered with the Kids with Dreams Club to plan the walkathon. Walk Now for Autism Speaks began as a national fundraising and awareness effort in 2006, with a focus on building a community for those with autism, promoting awareness of the disorder and fundraising for autism research.

 

Ideas and origins

Savitz’s interest in autism began primarily through his connection with his brother, who was diagnosed with autism at age two. During sixth grade, Savitz delved into the subject for a major class research project, in the process realizing his misconceptions about the disorder’s prevalence.

“This research project allowed me to see how common this [autism] was. By the time I finished the research project it was one in 150 children,” Savitz said.

This year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that autism affects one in 68 American children.

Currently, there is no identified cause of autism, but researchers have connected autism to genetic and environmental factors. At the moment, the Stanford Autism Center is focused on narrowing the list of genes and environmental triggers that cause autism.

Savitz said that he had been surprised by how little attention and research autism received.

“I wanted to be able to help my brother and those affected by autism around the world that were facing day to day issues that we were,” Savitz said.

 

Program goals

Savitz maintained that a number of misconceptions persist with regards to autism. He claimed that most Americans are familiar with the term autism – to a complex group of brain disorders identified with varying levels of severity through the presence of difficulties in social interaction, limited verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors – but cannot discuss much more than that.

“My brother, Tyler, falls under the mild spectrum,” Savitz said. “He loves classical music – has thousands of classical music CDs. He knows every single track and every single composer in order. [He] has perfect pitch, but has a tough time doing normal things. He needs an aid at all times in school. He needs to get a lot of curriculum modified. [He] wants to be a conductor – that’s his dream job.”
Savitz, however, noted there is some controversy surrounding the diagnosis of autism.

“It’s very possible that there are many types of autism that we haven’t discovered,” Savitz said. “Just like cancer, there are many types of cancers. Different types of autism just haven’t been grouped yet. And [we] probably won’t be able to group those yet until we find a cause for autism.”

Savitz also noted the distinction between using the word “autistic” to describe a child versus “a child with autism,” arguing that the former description defines a child rather than framing the disorder as simply another characteristic.

“My brother is musically talented and he loves to laugh and smile,” Savitz said. “He’s funny and a really caring kid.”

To help spread awareness of autism issues, Savitz said that he hopes to later found an Autism Speaks U organization on campus that would bring guest speakers such as scientists and therapists to spread awareness about the disorder and provide a discussion space for those affected with autism.

 

Contact Christina Gibbs at clgibbs ‘at’ stanford ‘dot’ edu.

  • Erika Lynn Abigail Persephone

    Did you really just compare Autism and cancer?! Spencer, from an Autistic to a neurotypical, SHUT UP. You do NOT speak for me. Your words are beyond offensive.

    Any to the Daily, please follow these basic guidelines in the future: http://www.stanforddaily.com/2014/05/27/autism-allyship-and-autism-speaks/.

  • Matt

    Erika, nowhere did Spencer compare having autism to having cancer. I understand where your outrage comes from; here it is entirely misplaced. As a former cancer patient, a comparison of the two diseases would be a bit offensive to me as well, but Spencer drew the comparison only to bring up a point about varieties of a disorder – he might as well have said jelly beans instead of cancer; cancer is just more medically relevant.