By Shasti McLaughlin –
A new kind of autism support group respecting the diversity of the human spectrum relaunched in Portland, Oregon in September 2016 and it’s free to attend! AWEtism We Embrace (AWE) is a facilitated support group for neurotypical or neurodiverse parents, partners, caretakers, adult family members and adults on the autism spectrum whose motivation is to gain fresh perspectives regarding the autistic experience.
Members of AWE share a vision of creating a safe space to discuss struggles, strategies, concerns and successes related to the autistic experience. It is an environment of mutual respect to gain fresh perspectives and better tools for everyday living.
AWE support group facilitator and founder, Shasti McLaughlin shares with Spectrums Magazine readers her back-story and vision for the group.
My name is Shasti McLaughlin and I am a mother of a 13-year-old on the autism spectrum. My daughter was diagnosed at the age of 5. Years before having my own child, I worked with deaf children, all of whom experienced autism. I worked in elementary school classrooms as a paraeducator and found that no matter what level of function a child is diagnosed, all children are cognizant and paying attention to the world around them.
I created AWE (AWEtism We Embrace) because as a parent with a child newly diagnosed, I was choked with discouraging information. The people around me saw deficit; I saw difference. I liked the differences and I didn’t care for those differences being defined for me as deficits. I didn’t see my daughter as broken; she was and still is beautiful. I could see how her differences were changing me and my own perceptions of learning, of life itself. They still do. I could see how I was becoming a better person because of what was being defined as deficit. That felt like the opposite of deficit to me. I thought bringing others together to focus our energies toward how we benefit from autism could offset much of the doom and gloom we are presented with so often as parents, loved ones and people experiencing neurodiversity first-hand.
I named the group AWE because that is how I feel. I am in awe of the autistic experience and I am neurotypical, on the outside of it looking in. I do my best to embrace the neurodiversity around me. Acceptance is good, but embracing autism…that’s great! My daughter’s life experience will always be from a neurodiverse viewpoint. I will not understand her experience completely, nor will she understand mine. We weren’t meant to. She didn’t walk into this world trying to change me or anybody else. She deserves the life she’s living. She gets to live it in the ways that make the most sense to her. I have the opportunity to grow right along with her. I am thankful for that every day, even the tough days. Because yes I do have them, as does she.
I believe that welcoming neurodiverse and neurotypical adults into one group has a tremendous amount of benefit. Parents and loved ones of those on the autism spectrum, as well as neurodiverse individuals, need a place to talk through the pieces that are difficult. We need people we trust to understand at least pieces of our experience in a safe, loving, accepting environment. We need people who may provide clarity on experiences that confuse or frighten us. We are all people, with the same goals in mind (happiness, acceptance, success for ourselves and our loved ones to name a few).
I have a daughter whose neurology is not like my own. When something about her experience or our relationship is difficult for me to understand, it brings comfort to me to know that someone in the room may share her neurology. That person(s) may or may not be similar to my daughter and her thinking, but as a whole, their general life experience may be enough to give words of encouragement that help me relate to my daughter better. When I relate better to my daughter, her life gets better. My life gets better. We get better. The gaps between us get smaller.
I want my daughter at age 13, 23, 46 and 82 years old to know that there are people in the world, both neurodiverse and neurotypical that are willing to be open-minded and are safe, trustable, loving people with whom she can talk openly to about things that confuse her or make her uncomfortable. I want the same for those identifying as neurodiverse attending the AWEtism We Embrace group. We have so much to give each other.
Growth can happen in a safe, caring space filled with open-minded, willing participants. I am aware of the challenges a group like this can face. We don’t even have the language to talk about neurotypical/neurodiverse groups without separating them. At this time, we must use pronouns like “us” and “them,” “we” and “they.” The very language we use to talk to each other separates us. I believe people are ready for positive change. We can learn how to move past tolerance, beyond acceptance and into embracing each other. Without changing each other.
Originally from Chicago, Illinois, Shasti McLaughlin now lives in Portland, Oregon. A proud member of the autism community for almost 20 years, she is an American Sign Language interpreter and ordained minister. Shasti is also a writer, a mother of a daughter on the autism spectrum, and an optimist. A copy of this article was originally published in the Fall 2016 edition of Spectrums Magazine.
AWEtism We Embrace (AWE) is a free support group of Autism Empowerment that meets the third Thursday of every month from 6:30 pm – 8:30 pm at Concordia University Library, Room 120, 2811 NE Holman St., Portland, Oregon 97211.