It takes a lot to get students to come to school on a Saturday, but on April 13, more than 300 students, family and community members packed the Bellevue College cafeteria. From 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., the Autism Spectrum Navigators program in association with the Disability Resource Center put their Second Annual Autism Awareness Video Game Tournament to raise funds and awareness. While no one was there to study, the hundreds of attendees learned a lot about the Autism Spectrum through speakers, student panels and Mario Kart.
The ASN program is a student success initiative that helps students on the autism spectrum by working one-on-one with them to facilitate student-teacher interaction, self-advocacy, self-regulation, study skills and social communication skills. Currently, the program serves around 50 students, all of whom are paired with a peer mentor, called a navigation assistant, who they meet with once a week. This innovative program required an innovative fundraising event, which is where the idea for the video game tournament started. Instead of doing a more traditional fundraiser, like a bake sale or a car wash, Disability Resource Center Director Susan Gjolmesli decided to take a less boring route. “Most autistic people are really into video games,” said Gjolmesli, and once the idea was presented, “everyone went ballistic over it.”
“It’s something the students on the spectrum can relate to,” said Vanessa Zhou, a navigation assistant, “and it’s something they have fun doing. In terms of reaching out to youth, it’s a really excellent way to get people involved and draw interest.”
The ASN’s strategy paid off—literally. Although admission was free, the price of entry for the tournament was $10 and there was a silent auction where people could bid on gift baskets that were donated from members of the community. Altogether, the event raised $8,000 for the ASN program, $2,000 more than last year.
The funds raised from the event will go directly towards the ASN program, which isn’t self-supprted yet, according to Gjolmesli, because “a lot of the supports our students in the program need aren’t totally covered by the legal accommodations within the DRC program.” Primarily, their goal is to raise money for more Navigation Assistants.
The event didn’t just benefit the ASN program; attendees also walked away with a better understanding of the autism spectrum. There were presentations on preparing for college as an autistic person, the psychology of video games and parenting autistic children. Additionally, there was a student panel hosted by students in the ASN program, who answered audience questions about their college experience.
This portion of the event was paramount for all involved, as educating others about autism and dispelling stereotypes is a major goal for the program.
“People need to understand that we need difference,” said Gjolmesli. “You can’t force a square peg into a round hole…Don’t try to change me to think like you because that’s not possible. I have my own stuff that unless you could somehow my osmosis slip into my body and experience, you’re never going to get. And that’s how it is for people on the spectrum.”
Although the video game tournament is the only fundraiser for the program, the Autism Navigators Program and the DRC work year-round to help educate the campus about people with disabilities. For instance, the DRC has run training sessions for the Advising Center, the Associated Student Government and other Student Programs leadership, the Faculty Commons, and the English Language Institute.
Sara Gardner, a DRC program specialist, created a program to support people on the autism spectrum through online and hybrid classes by teaching them how to use CANVAS before classes began. Gardner also frequently sends out emails to the campus with educational articles and blogs dedicated to understanding autism.
The tournament was sponsored by the DRC, the ASG, the Inn Eastside, the Library Media Center, Multicultural Services, the Office of Equity and Pluralism, Student Programs, the Leadership Institute and Student Programs.