By Kyle Spurr, UM News Service
MISSOULA – Sophia Rodriquez, a University of Montana student majoring in communicative sciences and disorders, knows first-hand the challenges people who experience autism and other neurodiversities face each day.
Rodriquez grew up with a cousin, Lauren McDonald, who has level 3 autism, the most severe form that greatly impairs her verbal and nonverbal communication.
“She gets up every day and she smiles, and she has to face a world that judges her and makes things so hard for her,” Rodriquez said. “She is my motivation for so much of what I do. I am so inspired by her.”
Rodriquez of Yakima, Washington came to UM in 2019 to learn more about how to help those like her cousin who have specialized needs. She became the student director of MOSSAIC (Mentoring, Organization, and Social Support for Autism/All Inclusion on Campus) program and a member of the Global Leadership Initiative where she works toward a certificate in social inequalities and human rights.
Through her work addressing social inequalities and efforts to create more inclusive spaces, Rodriquez was selected for the 2022 cohort of Newman Civic Fellows.
Students selected for the yearlong fellowship are leaders on their campuses who demonstrate a commitment to finding solutions for challenges facing communities locally, nationally and internationally.
Rodriquez joins 173 student civic leaders from 38 states, Washington, D.C. and Mexico to form this year’s cohort. The Newman Fellowship will provide Rodriquez with a year of learning and networking opportunities, including a conference this fall in Boston.
“It means a lot because I’m so honored to represent the groups I work with,” Rodriquez said. “I’m so grateful and honored that I can provide more education and awareness toward what adults with autism and other neurodiversities need.”
UM President Seth Bodnar nominated Rodriquez for the Newman Fellowship. In his letter, Bodnar described her as a leader who works toward creating a more equitable environment on campus.
“She has committed significant time throughout her years as a UM student, working with participants in the MOSSAIC program, exceeding academic program service hour requirements and participating as a member of NSSLHA (National Student Speech, Language, and Hearing Association.)” Bodnar wrote.
As the student director of MOSSAIC, Rodriquez organizes weekly social gatherings for participants with autism. Gatherings have included game nights, hikes and walks to ice cream shops.
Creating these social gatherings are especially meaningful since research has showed how hard loneliness is for adults with autism and how social interactions can be daunting, Rodriquez said.
“I create the activities to increase social interactions in a way that works with our participants and meets them where they need to be met,” Rodriquez said. “And not make them go out of their way to environments that can be really stressful for them.”
Rodriquez also is working with Jennifer Schoffer Closson, a clinical assistant professor in the UM School of Speech, Language, Hearing and Occupational Sciences, to create neurodiverse and sensory inclusive kits on campus.
The kits will be implemented this fall and include a fidget kit, ear plugs, signs for students to alert instructors of their comfort level such as “today I am just listening,” videos to educate people on campus and covers or filters for fluorescent lights.
Rodriquez conceptualized the project and had help executing it with the entire CSD 396 Autism on Campus Service Learning class, Schoffer Closson said.
“Sophia is very enthusiastic and passionate about making UM inclusive for those that experience neurodiversity,” Schoffer Closson said. “When I talked to her about the idea of sensory kits, Sophia was fully on board.”
When Rodriquez earns her undergraduate degree next year, she plans to pursue graduate school and eventually start a career as a speech language pathologist and work with children with specialized needs. She’s interested in expanding MOSSAIC programs, including in her hometown of Yakima.
All of her career plans and passions stem from her time with her cousin. Rodriquez sees how much harder her cousin has to work to get an education, job and housing. She admires her cousin’s strength and that motivates her to make the world more inclusive.
“We can make changes to be better and be more educated,” Rodriquez said. “And that is all I want to do.”
Contact: Dave Kuntz, UM director of strategic communications, 406-243-5659, firstname.lastname@example.org