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Not often are college students seen on tiny colorful chairs, playing and singing.

But for volunteers with Penn Speaks for Autism, this happens three times a week.

Penn Speaks for Autism originally began as a small group dedicated to raising awareness and providing support for families in the community. Today, it has grown immensely, and its most recent addition is the launch of an after-school program for autistic children at Lea Elementary on 47th and Locust streets.

The program pairs student volunteers one-on-one with an autistic child. It’s the first of its kind to be initiated at Penn. The volunteers spend the afternoon with the children, playing with them and at the same time teaching them academic and social skills.

The program has been a long time in the making. The idea began in 2009 with the original founders of Penn Speaks for Autism, 2012 College graduates Alison Lai and Michelle Fang. Current co-presidents College senior Alisha Saxena and Engineering and Wharton junior John Lu have brought it to life.

The group has been working on the program for almost two years, said Saxena.

“We got in contact with Lea in the spring of last year but they told us we needed to find a special education teacher,” Lu said. “It took us a while to find a special education teacher and take care of some legal issues, but after everything was said, we decided to start this September.”

The program aims to help provide additional support for families with autistic children in West Philadelphia. “There are a lot of autistic families in the Philadelphia area and it’s hard for them because school ends at 3 and a lot of them have jobs until 5 or 6,” Lu said. “They would usually have to hire their own special education teachers.”

The program is oriented around the fact that the children are coming back from an already long day of school.

They begin the program with icebreakers and welcome songs. Then the volunteers give the children a brief introduction to the day’s plan and break into groups to work on developing academic and social skills. Then there is snack time with cookies and juice.

“Although this has only been my first time meeting the kids, the club is very prepared, and I think it’s a great program to have at our school,” volunteer and College sophomore Emma Kelly said.

Prior to the start of the program, the volunteers went through a series of intensive training sessions. They learned a brief overview about autism, what scenarios they may be likely to encounter and how to best combat them.

This past week, the volunteers went into Lea Elementary for a week of observation in order to get to know the students better and begin to form relationships with them.

“My goal for this semester is to get 10 kids in the program and 10 volunteers in the program on each day, ” said College senior Julia Katz, volunteer chair of Penn Speaks for Autism. Katz hopes to work with both the students and their parents to better understand their expectations. “Hopefully for next semester, we can expand to a five-day program and bring in more volunteers,” she said.

At the end of the day, Lu and Saxena both stressed that the program could not have been successful without help from the Penn Speaks for Autism board and its volunteers. “Our volunteers are definitely the most dedicated out of everyone, and we would like to really thank them for dedicating three hours a week to come,” they said. “We really expect great things.”

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