CSU student with autism, schizophrenia and epilepsy excels in advocacy roles

When Savanah Overturf was a child, she was diagnosed with autism, schizophrenia and Tourette’s syndrome. She struggled with the alphabet, and when she finally read her first book with the help of her second grade teacher, she was so excited to tell her classmates. But they just teased her, so she gave up reading altogether.

“I was bullied a lot in elementary school,” said Overturf, who is now a student at Colorado State University majoring in communication studies. “I would go home every day crying. I wanted to be home-schooled. I was having candy thrown at me, my pencils broken, things written on my desk.”

Savanah Overturf with her dog Leia
Overturf with her dog Leia

School textbooks aside, the Loveland native didn’t read her first book for pleasure until she came to CSU. Now, Overturf is thriving and earning good grades. She delivered a TEDx Talk in Grand Junction in March about her experiences.

But it wasn’t an easy path to get where she is today.

A mother’s determination

When Overturf was born, she was given the “failure to thrive” label because she wouldn’t eat. A feeding tube through her nose didn’t work, so doctors inserted one in her stomach and predicted that she’d need it until age 5. But her mother’s unyielding efforts to help her daughter through bolus feeding resulted in the tube being removed when Overturf was only a year old.

“She worked really hard to make sure I wouldn’t have the feeding tube as long as they expected,” Overturf said. “My mom is very determined.”

Even though she no longer needed the feeding tube, Overturf was still not progressing. She was nonverbal until she was 4 years old and would grunt and point to what she wanted. She finally started parroting what others said, but Overturf spent a lot of time at Children’s Hospital Colorado in Aurora.

“It was kind of a load for my parents,” she said.

Her struggles with bullying continued through middle school, when she started having seizures and was diagnosed with epilepsy. One day at Loveland High School, she decided that she’d had enough and refused to get on the school bus. Her mom drove her to school, but Overturf refused to get out of the car. Then a teacher named Mary Manion plopped herself into the back seat of the Overturfs’ car and asked if Savanah would like to join her special education class and its “Calico Cat Café,” run by her students at the school. Overturf, struck by Manion’s red hair and resemblance to Ms. Frizzle on the TV show The Magic School Bus, agreed and got a new start. She made new friends and got involved in the Special Olympics.

“It really changed my perspective because I’d always been told I’d never be able to do anything,” said Overturf, who graduated from high school in 2011.

Savanah Overturf with her mom

Savanah and her mother, Joy, at a conference for The Arc earlier this year in Washington, D.C.

Savanah Overturf

Overturf at a Special Olympics basketball game

Path to CSU

Overturf went to Front Range Community College, and it took her six years, but she earned her associate’s degree before starting at CSU in fall 2019. She had participated in activities at the University’s Rohr Chabad Jewish Student Center while at FRCC, so she was already familiar with campus and Rabbi Yerachmiel Gorelik.

Overturf still has sensory issues and uses noise-canceling headphones and soft fidget toys. She has a service dog named Princess Leia that can alert her when a seizure is approaching.

“She’s like medical equipment,” Overturf said of Leia. “She can tell me up to an hour beforehand when I’m going to have a seizure.”

Leia can also brace Overturf when she’s having a seizure, or help her up after having one, and will alert the closest person if she’s unconscious or needs additional help.

Despite her challenges, Overturf has excelled in various advocacy roles. She serves as vice chair of the Loveland Disability Commission and attended a national conference of The Arc in Washington, D.C., in January. In 2017 she was crowned as Colorado’s Miss Amazing, a nonprofit program that provides opportunities for girls and women with disabilities. She is active in a Special Olympics Athlete Leadership Program and has participated in volleyball, softball, basketball and swimming. Gymnastics is next. She has served as a senator with the Associated Students of Colorado State University and will be a Ram Welcome leader this year. She earned a 4.0 GPA last semester.

“I’m really happy about that because grades for me can be hard,” Overturf said. “It takes me a long time to understand material. I work hard because of my unique abilities, and I love who I am becoming.”

Overturf at a Miss Amazing photo shoot with Leia and at a Special Olympics Tip a Cop event.

The TEDx Talk

Overturf said she has always wanted to give a TEDx Talk, and her instructor in a CSU advanced public speaking class encouraged her to apply. She got an audition and was accepted.

“I cried the whole day, I was so happy,” Overturf said. “I want to keep spreading my message. I don’t want the world to see me when I talk, I want them to see themselves. What would be the point of them thinking of me? You can’t make change by yourself.”

She added that her message is also about overcoming adversity.

“When you’re told you can’t do something, you need to try, and often you can do it,” she said. “I’ve really worked hard to get to that point, and I want to help others get to that point.”

According to Overturf, one of the many downsides to the COVID-19 pandemic is that face masks hide people’s smiles.

“Smiles are powerful,” Overturf said. “You can smile at someone and change their mood.”

In her TEDx Talk in Grand Junction on March 7, titled “Autism Through My Eyes,” she said autism is not a disability; it’s a unique ability.

“I believe one of the biggest struggles those with autism face is others saying we can’t,” Overturf said. “‘You can’t play a sport, you’re nonverbal.’ … ‘You can’t go to college, you won’t understand.’ Well, that’s a lie. A blatant lie. I’m a proud CSU Ram.”

She described autism as a gift that society needs to embrace and encourage.

“I’m Savanah,” Overturf told the audience. “I have autism. I am not broken. I’m a uniquely abled woman. … It is your turn to take a stand and make a change. I dare you all to be brave.”