Teaching children and teens on the autism spectrum how to develop and sustain relationships is part of our responsibility as parents. In my last blog post, I described the different types of circles of support. Many children and teens with autism do not naturally create Circles of Participation and Circles of Friendship.
For someone like my son, Jeremy, who needs a support person and uses assistive technology to communicate but does not easily initiate, it’s not been easy. In our book A Full Life with Autism (Macmillan, 2012) we described how we looked at Jeremy’s interests – writing, autism, painting and advocacy and focused on finding how he could meet people or get involved in organizations.
Volunteering in the community is a good way of creating connections (circle of participation). It’s also a way for a young person to discover what they are good at or what they like, to learn responsibility, and give back to the community. The person also learns the enjoyment of giving and not just receiving.
When Jeremy was 13 or 14, we decided it was time to try some kind of volunteering. At that time, Jeremy did not have a lot of appropriate communication skills, but he liked being out and about and although occasionally he had trouble with keeping his hands to himself (he likes to touch and twiddle things) we decided he was ready. We picked Meals on Wheels because he liked riding in the car, he could ring the doorbell and hand people their meals. Many of the people on our route were elderly and in apartments, and they were so happy to see a young person at the door. The hardest parts of this volunteer experience was that often the elderly residents had decorations on their front doors that Jeremy had a hard time keeping his hands off, and that when the door was open he wanted to go inside to check out the place.
Next he started walking the dogs for a pet shop near where one of his support persons lived. This position served the dual purpose of helping out a harried shopkeeper and teaching Jeremy how to hold a leash and walk a dog, good pursor to owning your own pet. When Jeremy got his assistance dog, Handsome, we started taking him to visit relatives and friends in hospitals or nursing homes. The staff and other patients love spending time with Handsome and Jeremy enjoys seeing how happy Handsome makes the people.
Meanwhile over the years as Jeremy’s written communication skills improved and he started writing articles about having autism and how that effected him, he began to receive emails and messages through facebook from parents saying how much they appreciated his insight, how helpful it was to them to have his point of view on his experience. They also began to ask him questions which he would answer. Over time, this made him realize what he had to offer to others and he decided that he wanted to become a writer and an advocate to help others. Then, after graduating from high school he was asked to become active in a few different autism organizations.
In recent years, Jeremy joined the staff on his community college newspaper, joined a local non-profit writer’s association, and spent more time attending and speaking at autism conferences. More recently, Jeremy has discovered painting and this has provided another area in which he can connect with other people.
There are many opportunities available to become involved in his different interests and hopefully this will broaden his circle of supports over time.