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Video game tournament aids autism program

Students sparred in a video game tournament March 13 at Bellevue College to raise funds and awareness for the school’s Autism Spectrum Navigators (ASN) program. Now in its second year, the tournament raised roughly $8,000, enough says program manager Sara Gardner, to expand in the fall.

“Because of myself and my own college experiences, I know firsthand how difficult it can be and what type of troubles you run into,” said Gardner, who identifies herself and her son as autistic. “Our program is the only one in the country that doesn’t charge families for these services, and families are thrilled with that.”

Autism is a complicated spectrum disorder that doesn’t look the same in any one person. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 50 U.S. schoolchildren are believed to live with some form of autism, amounting to about 1 million American children.

“Symptoms can vary,” says Jeff Harman, a student of ASN who also spoke at the Saturday event, “from people who can’t talk or function in everyday life, to intelligent and capable people. It’s a very stereotyped disorder.”

Young people diagnosed with autism typically struggle more in the classroom, excelling at times and then falling behind at others. Many don’t know to ask for help, says Gardner. So in 2011, Bellevue College created the ASN, hoping to change such academic outcomes. A two-credit course, ASN meets once a week to offer mentoring and support. Each quarter offers a new topic. This spring it’s self-advocacy.

Now in its second year, Gardner says she’s seen incredible successes. Eighty-five percent of students completed the year with a C minus or higher. The program also cultivated retention rates of up to 95 percent, compared to a control group’s 67 percent, with an average GPA of 2.1.

“The things you can’t quantify are the self-confidence that we’ve seen really grow in students,” says Gardner. “[Students] holding their shoulders back and reaching out to people and communicating.”

Harman agrees. A member of ASN since it began as a pilot, he says his confidence has grown immeasurably: “I have a bunch of friends in the program now, and I’m also more organized.”

Gardner attributes such successes to the program's commitment not to “fixing” students, but to equipping them with skills that will help them in the classroom and beyond. What began as a group of 17, has since grown to 50.

And with the money raised Saturday, Gardner says she expects to take on 75 students next fall. As for Harman, with the skills learned at ASN, he hopes to transfer to Central Washington University where he’ll study filmmaking.

“I can’t speak for other students,” says Harman, “but [ASN] has personally helped me a lot.”

 

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