Giving Kids A Place to Connect –
Social Groups for Tweens and Teens by Tara O’Gorman, MSW –
I never saw myself as a person who would run a social group for tweens and teens on the autism spectrum. On the contrary, for many years I was more likely to be quickly removing our family from social situations than arranging them.
My husband and I created a ‘flight plan’ for social situations when my son was around two years old. When we knew a meltdown was coming, we did our best to quickly remove us all from a party or family dinner. Sometimes we were successful and staved off the inevitable meltdown until we reached the car. Usually, we felt shame and embarrassment as we were unable to remove him fast enough and then were subject to stares and well-meaning (however unhelpful) suggestions, and I felt tremendous guilt over the belief that we continually put him into situations I knew he could not handle. Over the next few years, these situations led to feelings of alienation and loneliness for us all.
Several years ago, my family was grateful to find a local game club designed for kids on the autism spectrum. After many years of isolation, I was thrilled to find other families like ours, with similar experiences and a common desire to connect our children with like-minded friends in a welcoming, judgment-free environment. For the first time, I saw my son connect with other children. They played outside, they took turns playing video games, and they laughed!
My son was eight years old, and I FINALLY felt comfortable in a place with people who understood what was happening. There was no judgment, no pieces of unwarranted advice that did not apply to our son, no need to run away. I finally felt part of a community and my son had real friends.
As he aged, I felt him pulling away from this group. Although he had made a small group of friends, they were choosing play away from the group and resisted attending. For my son, the problem was simple but unresolvable. He was having a harder time around younger kids and just wanted to hang out with friends his own age. So we pulled away but managed to maintain some close friendships.
We approached the teenage years, and I saw some needs that were not being fulfilled. My son and his friends had ‘graduated’ from social skills groups. They still managed some one-on-one time or conversations by FaceTime or Skype, usually while playing video games, but we were missing the in-person social time.
We occasionally attended a game club in West Linn run by Portland Aspergers Network (PAN), but for us it was a long drive, and few of his good friends were ever able to attend. He really enjoyed spending time there, and it is a great local resource for those able to travel easily to the area.
During a parent support group through nonprofit Autism Empowerment, I had the opportunity to discuss with co-founder John Krejcha my vision of a more local group for tweens and teens. I am a consultant and facilitator for a young adult social group through PAN and had some ideas for a group in Vancouver I felt would meet the needs of my son and so many others in our community. From conversations with some local friends, I knew we had at least half a dozen boys who would love to form a group that allowed our increasingly independent kids a chance to hang out while the parents had a bit of a break themselves.
My vision was to provide a fun, independent, peer-mentored social group for youth ages 11-19 and a place for families to interact and find support in a safe, non-judgmental environment. I did not want a social skills group. Our kids had spent years in school programs and private therapy aimed at increasing social awareness. My aim was pure fun. We met to discuss my vision and create an action plan. I knew my vision would not provide for the needs of all, but I felt it would be a great opportunity for middle- and high-school aged kids who were capable of some independence and desired a chance to interact with peers, under limited supervision. Rather than hovering adults, I hoped to use peer mentors, most of whom were siblings who were compassionate and accepting. The Southwest Washington Tween and Teen Club was born!
While I knew we had 6-8 families who were committed to attending, I was nervous about our success. Would those families continue to come each month? Would the needs of both the kids and the parents be met? Would the peer mentor group be successful? Would everyone feel safe and comfortable, and would they all enjoy themselves?
After more than six months, our group averages about 50 in attendance, which includes parents and siblings. We have a large game room where the hub of activity takes place. A smaller game room is available for those seeking a quieter atmosphere. We have a food room where kids and parents congregate for pizza and snacks. The parents have a separate room to relax and chat with friends. The parent room quickly formed a support group, which has been invaluable to many parents who have felt isolated in the past.
Personally, I have seen amazing changes in many of the kids. They are free to be themselves, without anyone commenting on behaviors or manners. Some parents are initially cynical that their child can handle being on their own without a lot of parents nearby to intervene. Fortunately, most have found that their child enjoys his or her freedom and, as an added bonus, find themselves enjoying some adult time in the parent room.
Are there hiccups? Definitely. Sometimes kids are upset that they lose a game. But in an environment where there is less judgment or pressure than they may have experienced in other social situations, those same kids quickly calm themselves or are distracted by another child who invites them to come play a different game. Sometimes the noise can be overwhelming, and sensory overload leads to minor meltdowns.
The peer mentors in particular have been critical to our success when it comes to these minor issues. They recognize when someone may be uncomfortable or struggling to fit in. I often find a group of two or three mentors sitting down and playing a board game with someone who was upset by the chaos of the game room. Instead of a sensory situation which could have escalated into a meltdown or a desire to leave the group altogether, the peer mentors help provide different options for tweens and teens to take a break and still enjoy a game and social interaction in a calmer, quieter environment.
Overall, there is laughter, fun, and a sense of belonging. We have had more than one family travel from Portland for our group. I have been blessed with a hug from a kid or two who is grateful for the Tween and Teen Club. Most families are able to stay the full three hours, and the biggest complaint is we ONLY meet once a month!
Social Clubs, Game Nights, and Group Activities for Tweens and Teens with ASD in the Portland metro and Southwest Washington area:
For upcoming dates and details please visit the respective websites.
Southwest WA Tween and Teen Social Club – meets the third Saturday of most months from 6 – 9 PM in Vancouver and is for middle-school and high-school students (ages 11 – 19) who require minimal supervision. – http://www.bit.ly/aetweenteen -(Special summer schedule: No meeting in June 2016, July meeting is 4th Saturday on July 23rd, 2016) – Facilitator: Tara O’Gorman – email@example.com
Tween and Teen Book Club – *NEW for July 2016* – meets at the same time as Tween and Teen Social Club – Facilitators: Torin Tashima and Brian Tashima – firstname.lastname@example.org
Portland Asperger’s Network (PAN) Game Club – www.pdxaspergers.org – Holds monthly game clubs for ages 5 – 18 and a Teen Club for various activities. The monthly club meets the second Friday of each month in West Linn from 6:30 – 10:00 PM except in December. The Teen Club generally meets on the fourth weekend of each month (dates, times and locations vary). Please see website for details.
Tara O’Gorman, MSW is an independent consultant and advocate for individuals and families living with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and provides consulting for organizations within the ASD community through her business, SpectrAbilities. She is a group facilitator for adolescents and young adults with ASD and is proud mom to two sons, including an Asperger’s teenager.
Tara currently serves on the Editorial Advisory Board of Spectrums Magazine. This article was originally published in the Summer 2016 print and online issue.