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    Cohen, McKeown Bring 'Cats Together to Raise Autism Awareness

    Nov. 18, 2013

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    On Sunday, Dec. 1, Northwestern hosts its fifth annual Autism Awareness Game. This is a cause that is very near and dear to the Northwestern women's basketball program as the Wildcats raise awareness for the cause with the annual game and regular participation in the Walk Now for Autism Speaks during the spring. For more information on this year's Autism Awareness Game, including how to purchase group tickets for just $3, click here.

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    By Martina Barrera-Hernandez
    Northwestern Athletic Communications
    When the Northwestern women's basketball team takes the Welsh-Ryan Arena court on Dec. 1 to face DePaul, there will be much more riding on the game than the usual points and rebounds. The game marks NU's fifth annual Autism Awareness Game to fundraise for Autism Speaks.

    Junior Alex Cohen and senior captain Meghan McKeown are both involved in Autism Speaks U on campus, as well as the Autism Awareness Game.

    According to Cohen, "the main three goals of Autism Speaks U is to raise awareness, advocacy, and fundraise for our national organization."

    "I began with Autism Speaks U my freshman year here at Northwestern because my older brother Aaron has autism," Cohen said. "I was interested in becoming involved with NU's chapter and wanted to help spread awareness for a cause...Last winter, I was elected chapter president and I have loved every minute of it!"

    Much like Cohen, McKeown's motivation to be involved with Autism Speaks U lies in the story of her younger brother, who battles the disorder every day.

    "I became involved...because my little brother, Joey, has autism," says McKeown. "That has always been very close to my heart."

    The head coach of the NU women's basketball team Joe McKeown, who is father to Meghan and Joey McKeown, began the annual tradition five years ago through his involvement with the autism community.

    The need to increase awareness about autism is apparent in its widespread occurrence, as well as the general public's lack of knowledge about the disorder.

    "Autism is one of the most prevalent disabilities in children, about 1 in 54 boys or 1 in [88] children are affected," Meghan McKeown said. "We need to make a change...We need to raise money and awareness so that people can have better resources to help these kids with autism live to their potential."

    For Cohen, there are three main reasons why creating awareness about autism is crucial to foster a community of understanding, and to better support people with autism and their families.

    "First, so the community knows that individuals with autism are people just like everyone else," Cohen said. "There is no reason to treat them differently or with any disrespect. Second, so the community can help people with autism mainstream into society and live "normal" lives like the rest of us try to do. Lastly, so families with children with autism can go out in the community and feel safe; so they can feel like they too can go to the movie theater without getting looks and go to the zoo without getting stared at. I think it is important...that those with autism can feel accepted and loved too."

    In addition, players note that people with autism have a lot to give. By making them feel accepted, people and communities can benefit too.

    "[Aaron] has taught me so much about life, how to be patient and accepting of all kinds of people, how to be more loving, and to live in the moment," Cohen said. "I want him to be able to live as normal as a life as I have."

    "My brother Joey has always been my best friend growing up," McKeown said. "I really hope that one day he will be able to walk down the street and not be looked at differently or not be laughed at. I want him to be able to live as normal as a life as I have."

    Although Cohen and McKeown's personal connections to autism have fueled their desire to increase awareness, their fellow teammates have also gotten involved in the game over the past few years.

    "It is extremely special to me to have their support and to know that they are also playing for a cause that means so much to me," Cohen said. McKeown agrees with Cohen that the support of her teammates is both encouraging and meaningful.

    "They know my brother Joey very well; so they have a connection there," McKeown said. "They have a great understanding and they're very supportive of our initiative to take action."

    The players hope their example will jump-start the community into action beyond the confines of the basketball court.

    "There are so many ways people can get involved on and outside campus," McKeown said. "It's truly about increasing awareness and understanding that the kids and people in the autism community are normal people and want to be treated normally."

    In addition to personal education, Cohen believes that it is important to pass on knowledge about the disorder to others in order to instigate a community-wide conversation.

    "I believe people can help spread awareness by, first and foremost, being informed," Cohen said. "Second, informing others who may not understand. It is just as simple as having a conversation about someone who doesn't know the facts."

    In addition, Cohen stresses that the University community has resources available to learn more about the Autism Speaks program.

    "People around Northwestern and the Evanston communities can come to our Autism Speaks U events and help us work towards all of our chapters' goals," Cohen said.

    For further information on how to get involved with Autism Speaks, please visit http://www.autismspeaks.org.

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