Making an IMPACT on autism

Making an IMPACT on autism

Student group IMPACT Autism at UF making a difference for people with autism

By Molly Larmie

Members of the UF student group IMPACT Autism

Three years ago, Ashley Giddings arrived for her first semester at UF.

She chose a premedical track and began research with Mark Lewis, Ph.D., the executive director of the UF Center for Autism Related Disabilities. CARD provides support and assistance to people with autism throughout north central Florida.

But Giddings realized there was nothing to bridge the gap between the community and students like herself, who were interested in helping people with autism.

In 2009, Giddings, along with three other students, founded IMPACT Autism at UF, a student-run nonprofit that seeks to educate the public and raise funds on behalf of people with autism. Today, IMPACT Autism has more than 300 members.

Most of the group’s energy goes into planning “Kid’s Day Out” events. Every month, about 30 volunteers meet at Westside Park in Gainesville to provide an afternoon of care for children with autism and their siblings. Sometimes it’s the parents’ only free afternoon all month.

The group provides lunch and then oversees arts and crafts and sports. Every child is paired with two volunteers.

“It’s a chance for them to have the spotlight,” Giddings said. “The volunteers so want to connect with each child. It’s their only focus for four hours.”

Making friends can be hard for people with autism, Giddings said. Some children, especially those who are non-verbal, used to cry when their parents drove away. Now, they can’t wait to get out of the car, she said.

On Feb. 11, the kids made each other Valentine’s Day cards.

IMPACT Autism also holds fundraisers to support the local autism community. Project Communicate, a yearlong effort, focused on ways to help non-verbal children communicate more effectively.

The group reached out to six local families who have children with autism. At a ceremony held in the Health Professions/Nursing/Pharmacy Complex, the group presented each family with various communication devices, including sign language DVDs, organizational supplies and picture supports.

Three children received iPads that can be used with special communication apps. If a child is hungry, for example, she can click on a list of food to show what she wants. The iPad displays a picture and says the word out loud.

At the ceremony, some of the families met for the first time.

“IMPACT Autism means to really understand the impact of autism,” said the group’s faculty adviser, Joanne J. Foss, Ph. D., O.T.R. Foss serves as director of professional programs in occupational therapy at the College of Public Health and Health Professions.

“It’s not just the impact on the kids,” Foss said, “but on the families and communities as well.”


2012 Autism Symposium in the Swamp

To celebrate Autism Awareness Month in April, IMPACT Autism will hold the 2012 Autism Symposium in the Swamp. The event will be held April 20 at the HPNP Complex Auditorium and will feature a panel of leaders in the autism field. Panel members include Krestin Radonovich, Ph. D. (neuropsychology); Greg Valcante, Ph.D. (special education); Timothy Vollmer, Ph.D. (applied behavior analysis); Ann-Marie Orlando, Ph.D. (speech/special education); and Stacey Reynolds, Ph.D. (occupational therapy). Artwork created by children during Kid’s Day Out events will be auctioned at the symposium. Proceeds will benefit the UF Center for Autism Related Disabilities. For more information about IMPACT Autism, visit or email