Lights Turn Blue on Campus for Autism Awareness

First it was the main Campus Center dome. Then, the small pathway lights outside dormitory rooms started turning blue, along with highlights on campus ...

Apr 11, 2015

First it was the main Campus Center dome. Then, the small pathway lights outside dormitory rooms started turning blue, along with highlights on campus walls. Beyond Saadiyat Island, 8,400 structures around the world from Burj Al Arab to the Great Pyramids have turned blue in recognition of April as World Autism Awareness month. Each year, the number increases. And for the first time ever, NYU Abu Dhabi has decided to join the world in autism awareness efforts by going blue.
“Lighting up the campus blue during our first year on the new Saadiyat Campus is a wonderful way to shine a light on an important cause and our commitment to contributing to our local community,” wrote Assistant Director of the Office of Community Outreach Suparna Mathur to The Gazelle.
Mathur credited Campus Life Facilities Manager Declan Dowell for his help in everything from finding the right shade of blue light filters to procuring the materials from the USA and finally implementing the installation.
“As this was our first time doing this, the main challenge was achieving this within our original timeline … We were unable to light it up blue for World Autism Day on April 2, but are happy that we were still able to do this soon after the date,” said Mathur.
The movement to cast structures in blue light began in 2012, when an autism advocacy organization called Autism Speaks established the Light It Up Blue campaign to raise awareness about autism. The campaign does not limit itself to famous monuments. It encourages everyone to join in, offering tips on how families can turn their homes blue, as well as an option to donate to the cause.
There are currently three million people in the USA alone who are on the autism spectrum and an estimated 40 million people are affected by autism worldwide. In the UAE, the exact number of cases is not recorded, but the figure is relatively higher compared to occurrences of the disorder in the rest of the world.
Freshman Anna Balysheva was taking pictures around campus one night when she noticed something different.
“I saw the beautiful lighting, and at that time I had no idea that there was a deeper connection [in the] illumination around the campus,” said Balysheva. “And it was only when I met my professor and he asked whether I’d seen the blue light, [that I realized] that it represents autism awareness.”
Balysheva moved to the USA for the last two years of high school and volunteered in a program that helped raise money for cancer research. She remembers being struck by the symbolism and emblems wielded by the campaign in its efforts to gain support.
“There [were] a lot of donations. Colors became symbols, emblems and logos became representations of ... world problems that people [were] trying to solve somehow through collaborative research,” she said. “[It was about] making a small change in the community, and going broader or in a bigger scale.”
In 2014, NYUAD’s recognition of Autism Awareness Month had taken the form of a hundred blue candles in its old Downtown Campus on April 25. The gesture this year has since been magnified, growing from a single day of homage to a whole month of events, awareness-raising and activities.
This year, the month kicked off with blue cupcakes in the East Dining Hall, free garb to raise awareness among the community and a video that celebrated students’ engagement with the cause. Throughout the month, events include football games with children on the spectrum, an art exhibit for families affected by autism spectrum disorder and educational opportunities like conferences and an NYUAD Institute lecture. Prior to April, some NYUAD students had already been volunteering at Abu Dhabi Autism Center, teaching art to young children.
Though a breakdown of the month’s events can be found on the Student Portal, some students think that the initial appearance of blue around campus is not enough to encourage the community to engage with the cause, or even help them realize that the month is happening in the first place.
“Personally, I don't think it's enough,” said sophomore Alexandru Roşca. “Yes, people who have access to the Student Portal would know what [the lighting] stands for, that is, if they check it every day. But since we're an open campus, something more visible would have had a bigger impact. I think we have so many posters and flags that a small space could have been established for providing more information on the significance of the blue lights and ways to help the cause.”
In addition to being sponsored by the Office for Community Outreach, the NYUAD Autism Awareness Month project received financial support from the university’s new 2010 Fund, a collection of donations received from the university’s first graduating class.
The fund aims to help student-led community service projects around Abu Dhabi, while also supporting NYU New York students who wish to study abroad at NYUAD. NYUAD Autism Awareness Month is one of the fund’s first projects.
Siba Siddique is a staff writer. Email her at
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