School is a bit like a job – there’s the getting up each morning, the travel there, the demanding boss aka teacher, the work, the socialising and the travel home. School occupies our children’s days. But what happens when your child comes to the end of school? What happens if there is nowhere to go?
For many their days are filled with boredom. One mother in Texas, however, has decided to change this. Jamie Wheeler runs Austen’s Autistic Adventures, a social group where people over the age of 18 can meet friends and engage in fun activities to develop their social skills.
When Jamie’s daughter, Austen, graduated from High School, she lost her entire peer group as people moved on with the next stages of their lives. Where her daughter had once found community in the school choir and theatre groups, there was suddenly a void.
Jamie felt like she’d hit a brick wall and certainly hit an access barrier to services for post-18-year olds with additional needs. Determined to ensure that her daughter didn’t feel abandoned, she gave up her career as a college professor to set up the group.
For Jamie, it was about launching a program that was financially accessible with daily activities to allow members to experience real friendship relationships and reap the benefits of being part of a social group.
Another crucial component to the social interaction was having people from the local community sharing their skills and passion with members. This has meant things like visiting an art studio, a chef coming in to cook, and a tour of a local corporate office. Jamie tries to mix up the member’s experiences so they’re always being challenged in new social situations. She tells a wonderful story in the Friendships Matter Podcast of how young people learnt to interact and take turns while stuck in traffic on the way to (and from!) one particular event.
Jamie believes that daily interaction with others, both on and off the spectrum, improves social functioning. This is the case at home and in the community. Furthermore, by going out every day, the community at large gets to know people with autism as individuals, which leads to more, and better, employment and volunteer opportunities.
Overcoming the challenges
The main struggle Jamie faced when setting up was not knowing where to find people. She faced this challenge head on by using social media, setting up a website and getting the program out by word of mouth.
At the moment, Jamie’s biggest challenge is funding, it’s almost her full-time job, as they try to keep the prices for the members as low as possible. The key for Jamie now is to push forward with becoming a public, rather than private entity, and that will then open up more grant opportunities. She doesn’t worry about things not working out, but there can be nail-biting moments from a funding perspective!
Jamie is in talks with an initiative called 29 Acres in Dallas to provide the social component to compliment the 29 Acres housing project. She also has a passion for teaching her working model to others interested in doing something similar in their local community.
Jamie’s top tips for setting up a similar inititiave:
1. Stay community-based
2. Talk to local small businesses for advice/help
3. Have a social media presence
4. Be dedicated
For Jamie, the key is getting the members out of their comfort zones and realising that things change dependant on the time and the place. By shaking up the day to include new things, she has found that their confidence soars. Jamie also emphasises the important of keeping the events to less than 2 hours to ensure that members don’t get overwhelmed.
The importance of community cannot be underestimated when we try to consider how to solve many of the problems that our young people with additional needs face in today’s society. Jamie put it perfectly when she spoke about friendships and specifically, that no matter who we are, everyone wants friends and that it’s a misconception that people on the spectrum don’t want friends. In Jamie’s first-hand experience, she sees young people actively looking at who is going to each event to check if their friends will be there too, because they have built that crucial friendship bond. Jamie shows us what focus and enthusiasm can achieve, there is no doubt her future plans will be a success and continue to make a massive difference to young people’s daily lives.
If you have a similar story to tell I’m very keen to hear from you. Please get in touch because so many others can learn and benefit from your experiences.