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Spreading autism awareness around the world

Kaitlyn Dunn

Tikko has played a big part in helping me get more involved with my program."

With the goal of promoting autism awareness around the globe, Tikko – a plush polar bear who lives in the Early Childhood Studies program’s Resource Centre at the University of Guelph-Humber – has already travelled halfway across the world this year.

Over the holidays, second-year ECS student Kaitlyn Dunn had an extensive travel itinerary planned, and she decided she wanted to bring Tikko along for the opportunity to initiate enlightening conversations about autism with people around the world. In all, Dunn brought the charming little polar bear to Florida, Ottawa, Chicago, and even all the way across the Atlantic Ocean to London.

Certainly, she found Tikko was a valuable conversation-starter.

“People thought it was a personal thing that we were doing, but once we explained the purpose, and told them about the website, people were really intrigued,” Dunn recalled.

“People we met were really positive about the idea, and a lot of them even said they would check out the website. They thought it was a really cool idea.”

Along the way, Tikko had a photo taken with a group of beaming flight attendants and managed a chilly trip to the famous Cloud Gate – or “Bean” – in Chicago’s Millennium Park, another instance where curious onlookers approached Dunn with questions about her companion.

Tikko’s symbolic importance to the Early Childhood Studies program goes beyond spreading awareness and starting conversations.

Students in ECS frequently volunteer their time to support important social causes or volunteer in the community. In other initiatives this semester, ECS students are hosting a bake sale and auction as part of a fundraiser called Capes for Kids, in support of Holland Bloorview, and they’re also participating in a campaign to spread awareness for World Down Syndrome Day.

“In our program, we have a different perspective on special needs, disabilities, and how we talk about them,” said Elena Merenda, Assistant Program Head of Early Childhood Studies, who recently co-authored an article with Dr. Nikki Martyn, Program Head of Early Childhood Studies, on how bullying can be prevented by creating inclusive homes and classrooms.

“We want people to be proud of their identity. We all have special needs. We all have differences. It’s something we should celebrate,” Merenda added.

“I think that’s why it’s so cool to see students be a part of this. They’re making impacts in the field. They’re changing the way people think and talk about people with special needs and disabilities.”

For Dunn, travelling with Tikko only strengthened her belief in the value of empathy and diversity.

“With my program and what I’m interested in doing after school, autism awareness is a big part,” she reflected. “Tikko too has played a big part in helping me get even more involved with my program.”

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