Gabby D'Andrea, vice president of the Neurodragons, getting ready for an interview at the Eagles' NovaCare Complex late last year. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Eagles.
When asked what the Neurodragons are, the student group’s vice president makes it clear they’re a little more than a group that meets this day or that.
“We act as a friend group more than anything else,” said Gabby D’Andrea, a sophomore studying psychology who is a founding member of the Neurodragons.
For students who are neurotypical or neurodiverse (which could include those on the autism spectrum), the Neurodragons formed late in the 2016–17 school year to advocate for those who are neurodiverse, as well as to increase awareness of neurodiversity.
But their central mission remains to create a campus where everyone can feel comfortable and welcome.
“We show each other that we’re always there for each other,” D’Andrea said. “We plan group potlucks or Center City events, like going to the Mütter Museum. When you’re away from home and away from your parents, you feel a little lost — like you’re thrown out into the ocean. But we want to show that it’s okay to be yourself. No one is alone.”
In that spirit, D’Andrea and many of her fellow Neurodragons are excited to be out on May 19 to cheer on the bicyclists pedaling through Drexel in the inaugural Eagles Autism Challenge. And they hope to be joined by many other Dragons, whether they are students, faculty or staff.
The Neurodragons student group together with their advisor, Amy Edwards (front, far left).
“[The Neurodragons] are ambassadors and I think this is a great way to get involved within the community,” D’Andrea said. “We want to raise awareness about the autism spectrum and neurodiversity, but a stigma remains surrounding mental health. Neurodiversity is an operating system, like macOS. It’s how people are built and view and interact with the environment around them. You can’t change it..”
The Eagles Autism Challenge, announced in September, is a 5k and bike ride hosted by the Eagles that will raise money for autism research. That research will be conducted by a group of beneficiaries made up by the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and Thomas Jefferson University and Jefferson Health.
Starting and ending at Lincoln Financial Field, routes will actually take bicyclists through Drexel’s campus during Alumni Weekend. Those who want to take part in the Drexel cheering section can sign up through this link. The cheer zone will be set up in the area of 34th Street and Lancaster Walk (behind the DAC).
Others can help out at the rest/water station assigned to Drexel is in Fairmount Park at the Thomas Mansion on Wissahickon Avenue.
Anyone who volunteers for either spot will receive an Eagles Autism Challenge t-shirt and an invitation to join the festivities at Lincoln Financial Field after their shift is finished.
D’Andrea and the Neurodragons definitely want to get out there to support an organization that is still in the beginning stage, much like theirs.
The Eagles Autism Challenge will take place at Lincoln Financial Field May 19. Proceeds from it will benefit work at the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute.
“This is the first year of both the Challenge and our organization, so this is great,” D’Andrea said. “We want to get out there cheering for the participants.”
D’Andrea is a South Jersey native who was always involved and an avid sports fan growing up, especially when it came to the Eagles. And while Carson Wentz and Malcolm Jenkins are important names to any Eagles diehard, D’Andrea is actually a pretty big fan of the team’s physician, Peter DeLuca, MD, who she recently had the opportunity to shadow.
With that in mind, she is encouraged that two organizations she’s loyal to — Drexel and the Eagles — have been able to team up for much-needed funding for autism research.
“Even though autism is a hot topic in popular culture, I don’t think enough people know how to treat it,” D’Andrea said.
For example, D’Andrea said, prescription drugs for depression or anxiety might affect the autism community differently, but there’s not a lot out there explaining exactly how. However, at the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, assistant research professor Connor Kerns is making efforts to suss out differences between autism and co-occurring anxiety symptoms so that each might be treated individually and effectively.
Through research like that and other initiatives — with help from efforts like the Challenge — D’Andrea knows more and more myths about autism will be dispelled, while more of its facets will be illuminated.
“One of the things about autism is it’s very broad, it’s a spectrum,” D’Andrea said. “It’s not like a one-size-fits-all situation like another disorder, so I think having more information about what autism is, having more options available, is important.”
Anyone interested in joining the Drexel cheering section or volunteering to help with the Challenge can find information here.
Those interested in signing up to run or ride in the Eagles Autism Challenge can do so here. Note that there are mandatory fundraising minimums that will be automatically charged to a credit card.