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20110318_SERGIO-MUNOZ_AUTISM-AWARENESS_0017MISSION — When posed with the authority to write a declaration of independence of her own, 13-year-old Regina Torres chose uncharted territory.

Unlike her classmates, who vowed that homework would be abolished, Regina took charge against an issue that affects her family, and millions of other families and young children. In her declaration, no one would be treated differently because of a disability.

“I want them to know that just because they look different and act different everybody is still the same,” said Regina, a student at McAllen’s Travis Middle School.

In her family, Regina said she’s seen her eight-year-old brother, Rock, struggle in making and maintaining friendships with local children who don’t understand autism.

“They want friends,” Regina said of children with disabilities. “They want to be accepted and not be different because they’re not like everybody else.”

Autism, a brain development disorder, hinders social interaction and communication. It also causes restricted and repetitive behavior.

Regina’s declaration took her to Austin a few weeks ago where she met with elected officials on Autism Day with the local Autism Council for Education Support & Science Studies. After meetings in different offices where the group pleaded with officials to obtain funding for autism research, Regina read her declaration to state representatives. She was the youngest in the group.

State Rep. Sergio Muñoz Jr. (D-36) said he was impressed with her speech and told local families he would work to maintain funding for programs devoted to children with autism.

“It’s always good to see someone at a young age working so hard and devoted to children,” Muñoz said.

At his district office here last week, Muñoz presented Regina with her declaration and signed his support for her cause.

“It was something very moving for us,” Muñoz said of Regina’s visit to his office. “It shows concern for families and for all children.”

Dagoberto Garza, a parent of an autistic child, and a member of the Autism Council for the Education Support and Scientific Studies, said their visit to Austin was an effort to ensure funding for autistic children wouldn’t be taken away.

“This is wonderful; we need for our younger members of our community to recognize there are people who are different,” Garza said.

Regina’s declaration will also help the organization highlight its efforts and promote the early signs of autism, which can start at the age of 3.

Tony Torres, Regina’s father, said he was impressed and proud with his daughter’s approach to a homework assignment.

“Autism affects the whole family,” Torres explained. “People say (my son is) weird and it affects her. She sticks up for him and she wants other people to be aware who they are hurting.”

In her visit to Austin with politicians, Regina said she meant business.

“It was pretty nerve wracking because I didn’t want them to think I was just a kid, like ‘Oh, how cute,’ but I wanted them to take me seriously,” she said.

With their help, Regina said she believes she’s making strides in changing attitudes in her classmates and the local community.

“I’m happy everybody got to hear what I had to say; I didn’t like it when they did it to my brother,” Regina said of teasing. “I think it helped my classmates because they realized what I go through and what other families go through.”

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