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In honor of Autism Awareness Month, "Fashion Speaks" invited panelists to discuss the stigma surrounding people who fall on the autistic spectrum and to celebrate differences in people with disabilities, at Frist Campus Center on Tuesday, April 17. 

Service in Style will present the fashion show, "Fashion Speaks," which is one of the largest University student-run charity events of the year, on April 21 to raise awareness for autism. Panelists included Isabel Ruehl ’20, who is working on an ongoing project about autism as a Bogle Civic Service Fellow and who grew up with an autistic older brother; Erin Raffety, a lecturer at Princeton Theological Seminary and former Princeton professor who taught the writing seminar course WRI 182: Disability and Difference; and Amy and Sam Pickett, a retired FBI agent and her 22-year-old son who was diagnosed with autism in early childhood.

“In Princeton, the way we communicate is highly verbal,” said Raffety, when asked what she wishes people knew about autism. “But the neurodiversity movement emphasizes the diversity on how our brains work. We need to be open to the diversity of the ways people communicate. Our assumption is that language is the best way to communicate, but I don’t think that that is true. Acknowledging nonverbal people is a way of showing them dignity and respect.”

“It’s like picking from a bag of marbles,” said Raffety, answering a question on how to spread awareness on autism. “Many people have many different symptoms. Some people can communicate fully, some don’t have the physical ability to communicate. Some can speak a couple words, others can speak at all, but all people can understand, just some that can’t express.”

The panelists agreed that emphasizing autistic individuals’ humanity is critical, even with their nonverbal idiosyncrasies as ways to communicate emotion.

According to Pickett’s personal experiences, although autism is now a well-known disorder, it is only recently being rigorously researched. And New Jersey is home to incredible nonprofit institutions like Eden Autism in Middlesex County that helps improve the lives of children with autism.

“You have this vision about what your child is going to be, like, maybe he might go to Princeton!” said Pickett. “Then, in 1997, it wasn’t a well-known disease. You had this bleak picture of when this child grew up. But when he was age two, [Eden Autism] got him to talk, to pull out much of his personality. God blessed me to get him into [Eden Autism], to challenge him, work with him, and force him out of his comfort zone.”

Pickett continued, “others ask me if I would rather he not be autistic. He’s the joy of my life and I can’t imagine him any other way.”

The event was held in Frist 302 at 7:30 p.m. It was co-sponsored by the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students, USG Projects Board, the Lewis Center for the Arts, the Office of Disability Services, the Women’s Center, and the Pace Center for Civic Engagement. Fashion Speaks will be held in the Lewis Center for the Arts on Saturday, April 21 from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. 

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