Autism Doesn’t Deter Efforts of Young Utah Humanitarian

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Autism doesn’t deter efforts of young Utah humanitarianAusten Snow, 23, overcame some obstacles on his two-week service trip to the remote eastern rain forests of Guatemala: the humidity, the bug bites, the encounters with bats, snakes and giant spiders, to name a few.

Another challenge? He is autistic.

Snow went to the Central American nation as a participant in Youthlinc, a Utah-based organization that trains young humanitarians and takes them to service sites that also include Kenya, Cambodia, Thailand and Peru.

To qualify for a trip, Snow had to be accepted into the competitive program, find a sponsor and complete 60 hours of service.

When Snow told his mother, Jane McBride, about his decision to apply, she thought, “Really? That’s pretty huge.”

But Snow did it all.

“Austen was chosen completely on his merit. Hundreds of students wished they could have gotten into the program,” Youthlinc team leader Shelly Burningham said.

His mom said when her son wants to do something, he does it.

“There’s nothing that limits him in his mind,” she said. “He accepts that he has limitations, and he doesn’t let them hold him back.”

To complete the service requirement, Snow volunteered at Spectrum Academy, a private school for autistic students.

Snow chose Spectrum because he wanted to be an example to the young students with autism, who often have trouble fitting in, volunteer coordinator Heather Cunningham said. He wanted to show them that even if you have autism, you can grow up to be a great kid and go to college, she said.

“I naturally understood the challenges the kids were going through because I went through those challenges myself,” he said.

“Autistic kids are very smart kids,” said Snow, who has always been a straight-A student. “They just need to have a good environment where they can focus.”

For Snow, that good environment was the Mormon community where he grew up in Kaysville.

“Being a member of the church, I wasn’t really judged on the fact that I had autism,” he said. “I was part of a group of people who really loved and cared for me regardless of who I am.”

But, like many people with autism, he still faced social challenges.

Growing up he wanted to hang out with the “cute girls.”

“I realized, well, if I want to hang out with the cute girls I’ll have to take this approach differently.”

His strategy was simple.

“All I had to do is just be nice to them by saying, ‘Hi, how are you doing,’ and those five simple words were enough to help me make friends with those girls because they really appreciated the fact that I was nice to them.”

But, like many people with autism, he still faced social challenges.

Growing up he wanted to hang out with the “cute girls.”

“I realized, well, if I want to hang out with the cute girls I’ll have to take this approach differently.”

His strategy was simple.

“All I had to do is just be nice to them by saying, ‘Hi, how are you doing,’ and those five simple words were enough to help me make friends with those girls because they really appreciated the fact that I was nice to them.”

Girlfriends led him to his humanitarian trip. Two of his friends went on service trips to Kenya, Thailand and Peru, and he wanted to follow in his role models’ footsteps.

The 28 students who went to Guatemala this June sacrificed much on the trip. Burningham said the living conditions were worse than on the trips she’s been on to Africa.

But those tough conditions didn’t stop Snow.

“I knew it was going to be a hard trip,” he said, but “I came to Guatemala for a purpose and I was willing to endure the bug bites and endure the humidity because I knew I was there for a higher cause.”

Youthlinc worked with Asociación Ak’Tenamit near Rio Dulce. The nonprofit school is home to more than 500 students from 25 villages.

The group of 40 Youthlinc volunteers beautified the campus by painting, putting up walls and building a concrete walking path. They brought books, school and hygiene supplies and provided 130 eyeglasses to the students and surrounding community.

The volunteers also taught the children.

Snow taught his favorite subject: geography.

He talked about the U.S. with his self-taught Spanish language skills.

“Those Guatemalan students are, like, really smart,” Snow said. “They really soak in that knowledge like sponges.”

A few days into the trip, the Ak’Tenamit students were calling out Austen’s name as the group walked up the path to the school. Everybody knew him.

“Austen [was] such an important part of our team,” Burningham said. “He’d make us laugh, he’d make us cry, [and] just appreciate life in general because of how much he appreciated life, and the students at Ak’Tenamit felt the same way.”

Snow wants his success to inspire other people, especially other kids with autism.

A junior at Brigham Young University in Provo, he’s studying to become a special-needs teacher.

“It doesn’t really matter who you are,” Snow said. “All you need to really do is always continue dreaming, and always continue to keep thinking, and always continue to keep building yourself up.”

http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/home3/54479155-200/snow-autism-austen-students.html.csp

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