Xavier DeGroat began meeting with local leaders in 2009. He met with labor union officials, politicians and business executives around the city of Lansing and Michigan to educate them about autism spectrum disorder.
His goal: to create equal opportunities and an equal environment for those who are on the spectrum.
DeGroat, of Delta Township, has since created a foundation to continue his advocacy for people with autism. He is the founder and CEO of the Xavier DeGroat Autism Foundation, which he founded last year.
Autism spectrum disorder is a group of developmental disorders related to brain development that impact how a person perceives and socializes with others. This can cause problems in social interaction and communication.
DeGroat was recently awarded the Citizen of the Year honor at Delta Township’s annual Community Awards Ceremony for his work.
“I felt successful and I felt honored,” DeGroat said. “I felt like the words I’m trying to get out there, that make a difference, are beginning to be out there. And this award was just a big, little start towards a whole entire scope of what I want to get done.”
Delta Township Clerk Mary Clark was at the awards ceremony to help recognize DeGroat.
“He’s a very focused and determined young man, committed and has a good heart,” said Clark.
DeGroat, 28, was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at 4. He was born in Colorado and moved several places, finally settling in Michigan. Throughout his childhood he faced difficulties in school because his teachers and peers did not understand autism spectrum disorder, DeGroat said.
About 1 in 59 children in the United States have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, according to estimates from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network.
The spectrum includes disorders that used to be separate. These include autism, Asperger’s syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder and an unspecified form of pervasive developmental disorder.
There is significant effort throughout the world to raise awareness about autism spectrum disorder, what it is and what can be done to help. There are programs to help spread awareness like Autism Speaks. There is also research being done including on the campus of Michigan State University.
Courtney Venker, an assistant professor in Michigan State University’s Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders, is doing research with children from ages 2 to 5 who have been diagnosed with Austin spectrum disorder. She thinks it is important that people with autism are helping to spread awareness.
“Since there is increased awareness and there are people who are on the spectrum who are also advocates, I think that’s really powerful because they are supporting others who are also on the spectrum,” said Venker.
“In general, families with a member on the spectrum tend to want to support other families who might have someone on the spectrum,” said Venker.
Venker launched a new research project in January 2018. Venker said research is also really important to find what treatments are most effective.
“The project is to help better understand word learning in kids who are on the spectrum,” Venker said. “One thing that makes this project different is we focus on what does attract their attention, things that are big, brightly colored and patterned. Things that a lot of people would focus their attention on.”
DeGroat’s foundation has four core pillars. The four pillars include advocacy, creating economic opportunity, promoting autistic education and humanitarianism for people diagnosed with ASD and their families.
Since 2009, DeGroat has met with many influential people to continue to help educate about autism spectrum disorder, including former President Barack Obama and Vice President Mike Pence. He has also become friends with hometown Spartan figures like Michigan State men’s basketball head coach Tom Izzo and football head coach Mark Dantonio.
“After I met the coach (Dantonio) that day, we became friends like immediately, like boom,” DeGroat said.
DeGroat also recently held an event at the Jack Breslin Student Events Center at which Izzo and Dantonio spoke. Spartan Sports Support was an event that was meant to help bring attention and support to autism spectrum disorder.
DeGroat also advocates for those with autism in education, financial troubles and the workforce.
According to the Autism Society, 35 percent of young adults between 19-23 with autism have not had a job or received postgraduate education after leaving high school.
DeGroat wants to continue his foundation in the future, continuing it either full time or as a hobby. He hopes to be able to work in the sports industry or in the government.
“He’s full of ideas, he has lots of great ideas about understanding and awareness,” said Clark. “He’s pretty sharp and I think he’s doing a good job.”
DeGroat was recently accepted into Michigan State University, transferring from Lansing Community College. He plans to start in the summer of 2019 and to study communication.
“My autism isn’t just a MSU thing,” said DeGroat. “Autism is a non-partisan, non right-wing, left wing issue. It’s something I can get U of M to support even though they are rivals of MSU.”