Parenting can be challenging enough, but parents of autistic children sometimes need additional socialization opportunities for their children. Hamilton Autism Advocates for Neurodiversity (HAAND) is giving parents a place to turn for help with their child’s social skill development, said HAAND president Serena Persaud ’20.

For four to five consecutive Saturdays each semester, the 69 trained volunteer members of HAAND collaborate with the Kelberman Center to bring children and teenagers on the autism spectrum to campus. They are paired one-on-one with student volunteers and spend the day engaged in various games and activities. The program focuses on conversation practices in an environment that encourages stretching boundaries and making new friends. 

Dr. Michael Kelberman ’80 and his family are dedicated to the advancement of individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).  Kelberman provided leadership to a $1 million campaign to raise the startup funds for the organization, which was incorporated as a not-for-profit organization in 2005.

With activities ranging from crafts, board games, science experiments and outdoor sports, HAAND works to promote socialization skills in a way that allows both the Hamilton volunteers and their buddies to open up to each other and have fun. “It never feels like work once we’re here,” says first-year volunteer Maria Valencia ’21. “Everybody is so excited to be there and ready to engage. It’s a great way to relate with your buddy and build common ground.”

Club advisor Heather Wixson, the Career Center’s Associate Director of Career Development, credits her daughter with instilling in her the passion to start HAAND. “Once my daughter was diagnosed with autism, I connected with the Kelberman Center to look for support and guidance. We decided to make a club on campus to give parents that same sense of support while the students get the chance to work with the kids,” said Wixson. “It promotes socialization and recreation, but ultimately, the core of the club has always been about acceptance. Autism is not a disability, but a difference. It’s important that we start engaging with people who don’t think the same way we do. It’s the key to creating an open community,” she said.

Persaud, who plans on majoring in neuroscience, echoes that sentiment. “Neurodiversity is just a different way of thinking and looking at things. I’ve always loved the brain and how different it is, and seeing all of that unfold in real life is just incredible. There’s such an immense diversity in the way people view the world. It’s something we all should get accustomed to.”

By the end of her time with HAAND, Persaud hopes to see students build a genuine relationship with their buddies and influence their social development for the better. “I’m so excited to see everybody’s growth over the years,” she says. “It’s made me realize that they can make a difference in our lives just as much as we can make a difference in theirs.”

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