The Art of Giving Back: Students and alumni lend a helping hand to The Autism Project
Spare time is a rare commodity in today’s increasingly busy world. With so many responsibilities vying for our attention, it can be difficult to make time for extracurricular activities such as volunteering in our communities and schools. One organization that has no trouble attracting help from all walks of life is The Autism Project (TAP).
An initiative within the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education, TAP provides a center of services, knowledge, and best practices related to living and working with children who have autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The program helps families obtain referrals to neurologists, generate ideas for meet-up groups, access movement-based programs and participate in outings such as the popular Candlelight Ranch camping excursions.
“In addition to seeking services, UT graduates return to TAP to volunteer their time at our camps as mentors.”
Pamela Buchanan, a kinesiology lecturer and co-founder and director of TAP, has inspired numerous students to give their time to the project both in and out of school.
“Former students typically return to volunteer once they are teaching or are parents themselves to ask about their children’s needs,” she said. “We have several alumni who now have children with autism. Now they seek the same services they once provided.”
“In addition to seeking services, UT graduates return to TAP to volunteer their time at our camps as mentors,” said Buchanan. “Some graduates become partners in programs with TAP and others continue to share their video editing and promotion talents. Most importantly, it is the UT alumni who return with financial support to TAP that enable us to continue providing services to children and their families.”
Liza Karseno, a school math instructional specialist, is one UT Austin alumnus whose passion for the program has lasted past graduation. Karseno started working with TAP because it was a requirement for a kinesiology class taught by Buchanan, but she quickly found that she gained not only personal but also professional growth from her involvement.
“In my first year of teaching I had a student with autism in my class,” she said. “I was able to use a lot of things I had learned from TAP to deal with a student with special needs in a general education classroom. That prompted me to go back and continue to volunteer with the program.”
Every year Karseno takes one of her own students on the Candlelight Ranch camping excursion and participates in any additional program events she can make the time for.
“Some of the things that I’ve learned with TAP have proven to be very beneficial as I work with special needs,” she said. “Because of that I feel like a continuing student who learns from Ms. Buchanan and [TAP co-founder and kinesiology professor] Dr. Jensen whenever I go back and spend time with them.”
Arturo Cisneros is a Youth and Community Studies major who will be graduating this May. Like Karseno, he was first exposed to TAP through one of Buchanan’s kinesiology courses. After his first volunteer weekend at Candlelight Ranch he was hooked.
“At the end of it I was amazed by the amount of growth I saw in these kids in just one weekend,” said Cisneros. “After that I said, ‘If I can be an agent for that much change in one weekend, I want to keep doing this.’ That is what kept me going back.”
Despite taking a heavy 22-hour class load, Cisneros continues to volunteer his time to TAP with no plans of stopping after graduation.
“Right now we’re just a small Austin-based organization,” he said. “I want to be part of the reason it grows. I want to make it so more kids can get involved.”
Youth and Community Studies Major
Class of 2014
What inspired you to volunteer your time?
“When I first started it was through a kinesiology course that I was taking. There were requirements for volunteering for at least one event. I went to an overnight camping event at Candlelight Ranch. It was a tough weekend but I learned a lot. As difficult a time as I had, at the end of it I was amazed by the amount of growth that I saw. After that I said, ‘If I can be an agent for that much change in one weekend I want to keep doing this.’ That is what kept me going back.”
Youth and Community Studies Major
Current AISD math instructional specialist
Class of 2006
Why do you give back to your alma mater?
“I volunteered when I was a student, but after graduation, during my first year of teaching, I had a student with autism in my class. I found I was able to use a lot of the things I had learned from my time with TAP that I could apply to my classroom. That prompted me to return and continue to volunteer with the program. Some of the things that I’ve learned proved to be very beneficial to working with students with special needs in the general education classroom.”
Find out more about TAP here.