Thirteen-year-old Natalia Lujano has always had a hard time connecting with children her age according to her school principal. Now, the eighth grader who suffers from autism spectrum disorder (ASD) looks like she’s opening up. In fact, she’s starting a student club to bring awareness to autism and support young people like her and others who don’t think they fit in anywhere else.

Lujano was three years old when she was diagnosed with autism. The neurodevelopment disorder occurs in all ethnic and socio economic groups and affects every age group. Approximately one in 68 children suffer from autism based on research conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network. The disorder can cause social impairment, communication difficulties and restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior.

Despite her disability, Lujano has succeeded in school. The teenager said she is an A and B student at AP Solis Middle School. She is also very talented. She is a member of the school’s mariachi group. The young girl plays the violin and aspires to be a professional someday. “I want to be a musician. I want to play the violin. The strings make me feel calm when I play it,” Lujano said.

img_2430Lujano said dealing with autism isn’t easy. She and her parents seek help from Team Mario, a local non-profit organization that supports and advocates for children and families impacted by autism. Lujano says that’s where she got the idea about starting an autism club at Solis Middle School. The primary goal of the group is to bring awareness and educate her classmates and others about autism. “People need to learn what autism is,” Lujano said. “They have no clue what it is.”

The teenager spoke to her principal Mary Lou Rodriguez and after lots of discussions back and forth, Lujano decided to put in place a club for not only autistic students but for those who suffer from other disabilities or just need somewhere to belong or someone to talk to.

“We have so many kids that have that need, that emotional need that we may not be filling and this is something that we can offer, more support to our kids,” Rodriguez said. “Here at AP Solis Middle School, I know it sounds like a cliché, but we’re a big family. We want to make sure they are supported not just educationally but emotionally because if we have a well-rounded kid, we have a successful individual that we’re producing for the future. That’s our goal.”

Rodriguez said they support Lujano a 100 percent. “She’s super excited,” Rodriguez said. “Whenever she gets into anything she just goes full force. We’re trying to make sure that we support her in being successful because we have so many students out there that may not fit in one thing or the other, but they just need someone to talk to.

Lujano said one of the first things she wants the group to do is start a fundraiser for scholarships. She would like to collect $2,000 each year. “The first $1,000 would go to a student who has autism and wants to go to college,” Lujano said. “The second $1,000 would go to one of the club members who plans to study autism in college. The money can help them study to become a teacher, a counselor or a speech therapist.”

“We’ve got to make sure it shines” Rodriguez said of the club. With Lujano in the forefront, Rodriguez is confident the club will be successful.