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USF helps make Tampa an autism-friendly city

Center for Autism & Related Disabilities (CARD) at USF is partnering with City of Tampa to make the city inclusive and autism-friendly.

For Gage Sosso, living with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as a teenager was not easy. For the longest time, he felt like he was lost.

“As an autistic high school student, I felt like I had no sense of purpose in my life,” said Sosso, who was diagnosed with ASD at 16 years old. “I felt like I did not belong. It was a rough time.”

But his life took a positive turn after he attended the Learning Academy, which was originally launched by the Center for Autism & Related Disabilities (CARD) at the USF College of Behavioral and Community Sciences. The Learning Academy at USF is a 30-week program designed to prepare young adults with ASD for employment outcomes that match their personal goals.

Gage Sosso, 22, was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) when he was 16 years old.  

“I would not be here today without the Learning Academy,” Sosso said. “The program helped me meet people like me, discover my talents, passions and interests, and find happiness again. They helped me realize how much I love writing.”

Sosso, now 22, is using his talents as a news writer and blogger for the USF College of Behavioral and Community Sciences. Sosso, who is a second-year student at Hillsborough Community College, said he loves his job, and hopes to continue to pursue his passion in journalism or English.

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 68 children is diagnosed with ASD in the United States. As children with ASD grow into adolescence and adulthood, they need services and support, but they do not get proper help as early as they should.

CARD-USF is a community-based project that has helped individuals diagnosed with ASD and related disabilities for more than 25 years. Since the program was developed, CARD-USF has provided information, consultation and technical assistance to thousands of people affected by ASD as well as professionals who support them. The program also works with local businesses, hospitals and other organizations to help them build a more welcoming environment that better accommodates guests and customers with autism.

“Since we started, we’ve helped more than 19,000 people who have been impacted by autism across a 14-county region in the state of Florida,” said Karen Berkman, PhD, assistant professor and executive director of CARD-USF.

To continue that effort, CARD-USF is collaborating with the City of Tampa to help make the city inclusive and autism-friendly. Bob Buckhorn, City of Tampa mayor, announced the Autism Friendly Tampa collaborative initiative on April 4 during his annual State of the City address.

"As mayor, I am committed to making our public spaces, city facilities, parks and programs more friendly for those touched by autism and related disabilities,” said Buckhorn during his annual address. “We’re going to develop an autism-friendly guide, visual signage and designated quiet spaces. But, none of this would be possible without our friends at CARD-USF.”

(L to R). CARD-USF members Liz Burke, Mindy Stevens, Katy Langevin, Lee Daly, Dr. Karen Berkman and Christine Rover pictured with City of Tampa Mayor, Bob Buckhorn, after the Autism Friendly Tampa collaborative initiative announcement.

Through this collaboration, CARD-USF will provide training, guidance and resources to the city’s police, fire rescue and parks and recreation personnel to make Tampa a welcoming environment for people with ASD and their families.

We’re looking forward to working with the City of Tampa to improve the quality of life for people with ASD and create an autism-friendly Tampa,” Dr. Berkman said.

“I am happy Tampa is putting a focus on autism,” Sosso said. “In order for us to thrive and become fully participating members of the society, we need the entire community’s support. So, thank you.”

Story by Vjollca Hysenlika, USF Health Communications and Marketing 

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