May 1, 2024

Autism Awareness Alliance Hosts Special Celebratory Gathering

“BEYOND THE SPECTRUM”: Members of the Princeton Police Department were among those on hand to help out at this special Autism Awareness Alliance event on Saturday, April 27 at the Dinky Bar & Kitchen.

By Anne Levin

According to a March 2023 report by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the rate of children identified with autism spectrum disorder is one in 36 children nationally. Here in New Jersey, it is one in 35.

This and other statistics related to the developmental disorder inspired Sean (Shenyao) Xu, a sophomore at the Hun School, to help families — especially Chinese families — deal with the issue. Last Saturday, April 27, the 15-year-old, who moved to Princeton from China with his family a few years ago, helped organize a special “Beyond the Spectrum” event with the nonprofit Autism Awareness Alliance of Princeton.

Marking National Autism Awareness Month, the celebration brought some 128 people to the Dinky Bar & Kitchen. The day was made possible through a collaboration with the Princeton Child Development Institute and contributions from local student advocates and their families.

In the crowd were 62 children with autism, their families, and local high school and college volunteers. Also on hand was Mayor Mark Freda, who “praised the strong community turnout and expressed his excitement for future events aimed at building connections and enhancing autism awareness,” according to a press release. “While completing the ceremonial eye-dotting ceremony to initiate the [traditional Chinese] Lion Dance, he expressed deep appreciation for the community’s diversity.”

The Lion Dance team came from Wan Chi Ming Huang Gar Institute, based in New York City. “In China, lions are considered auspicious creatures that ward off evil and harm,” Sean said. “Before the Lion Dance performance, there is always an eye-dotting ceremony symbolizing the infusion of life into the lion. A lion that has been ‘dotted’ comes to life, symbolizing the warding off of evil, bringing good fortune, and a prosperous life. Firstly, we dot the left eye, symbolizing gleaming with golden light. Secondly, we dot the right eye, symbolizing sparkling with silver light. Thirdly, we dot the forehead, symbolizing fame spreading far and wide. Lastly, we dot the lion’s mouth, symbolizing peace all over the world. Mayor Mark Freda completed every step before the Lion Dance.”

Sean said he has spent the past few months communicating with more than 60 families about the event. He is planning to create a club at Hun to further awareness of autism and establish community connections.

Among the speakers was Princeton University senior and autism awareness advocate Whitt Harper, who detailed his personal experience living with the disorder. “He told a really touching story,” said Sean. “He has gotten a lot of help from people at Princeton [University] and he talked about how important it is to have a supportive community.”

Putting the event together, Sean had help from close friends in Virginia and Florida, one of whom he has known since elementary school. “I told her what I was doing and asked her for help, and she said, ‘I’m in.’”

Preparations for the celebration began at 6:45 a.m. “We had a lot to set up,” Sean said. “The balloons were actually a big part, and it was really a challenge. There was so many — more than 300 — and we nearly ran out of helium.”

Just before the start of the event, the office of Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman delivered a proclamation recognizing contributions of the Autism Awareness Alliance. Police officers on hand “not only ensured safety, but also engaged with attendees, taking pictures and promoting community support,” according to the release.

Sean said he hopes the celebration will be the first of many. “I want to make this an annual event,” he said, “doing something maybe bigger next year. It’s in the planning stages right now. We will definitely engage more people in our community, and it will be even better.”