Starting a Social Group
Years ago, my son began attending a game club dedicated to children with Asperger’s. The group was held at a local church that offered a room, one evening a month, to a group who had organized the game club. Local families paid a small fee and brought snacks to share. Eventually, this club expanded to families with children all along the autism spectrum and moved to a larger location.
We became friends with many of the families who attended the group and looked forward to the monthly group and the opportunity to mingle with others who understood the joys and challenges of raising children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Within a few years however, many of us felt our boys (there were very few girls attending the groups at that time) were outgrowing the group and were not enjoying the game club as much as they had when they were younger. My son, in particular, was having a difficult time with the younger children. The constant commotion and noise were becoming too much for him to handle. We had more meltdowns than fun, and he asked to stop attending.
It was a difficult decision for us. Most of his friends were in that group. There was little or no opportunity for him to see these friends outside of game club. I built friendships with some of the parents, but most of us had a difficult time remaining in contact when we lost the connection of the group. We managed occasional play dates (or ‘hanging out’ when the boys outgrew the term ‘play date’), but many of us wished for something more. Over the next several years, I continually dreamed of a group where our kids could be with other like-minded, same-aged peers… a group where parents could connect and relax while their kids enjoyed some independent, fun play time with friends.
I brought my idea to a local autism support organization. This group had actually taken over the original game club and also held volunteer-run parent support groups. When we began to discuss my vision, they acknowledged they had seen a decline in attendance among the teenagers. I suggested a ‘tween and teen’ group to meet the needs of our kids who were learning to be independent, were beginning to advocate for themselves, and who had families that desperately needed a place to connect with similar families. Our local Tween and Teen Social Club was born. In a few short months, we grew from a few local families to over 60 in attendance for each group. The group is mostly boys, but we are excited to have a small group of girls attending each month.
We have been contacted by other organizations and individuals interested in starting a similar club in their area. I have put together a list of suggestions for those interested in starting up a social club.
– Decide on an age group or other demographic. My son is a young teenager. I chose to focus on teenagers and the ‘tweenagers’ who are nearing middle-school age. Some may want to focus on younger or older kids, a group for girls, or decide whether you want a ‘game club,’ ‘social club,’ or ‘craft group.’
– Speak with a local organization that may be able to sponsor a group. Many towns have disability resource centers, autism support organizations, or specific therapy-oriented businesses (social skills groups, behavioral therapy centers). Ask if they would be willing to share your information with families who may be interested in joining your group.
– Find a location to hold your group. The organization that helped me kick off the Tween and Teen club holds office space at a local disabilities service center. They were able to arrange a regular time (for us, the third Saturday evening of each month) for us to use the conference rooms and dining hall. Churches are often a great option and allow groups to rent out space each month. Libraries, community centers, or other local groups may rent out to the community. Schools may be an option, but be cautious with large, open spaces such as a gym, as the acoustics and size of the room can be a sensory challenge.
– Plan for some logistics. We started with a basic plan and have adapted each month as challenges arise. Our initial vision was for a larger ‘game room’ for kids to bring personal devices (laptops, iPads, Nintendo DSs, etc.) but also had a setup for donated televisions and video game systems. We wanted a smaller room for a more quiet setting, deciding on a board game/craft room. We provide pizza, drinks and snacks in the dining area. One of our most important rooms is the parent room. Our original concept of a place for parents to relax became even more important as it has become a parent support group. Parents are able to chat, relax, commiserate, and support each other in a safe place, knowing their kids are safe nearby.
– Decide on the cost for families and how to offset expenses. Pizza is hugely popular among teenagers and, overall, not that expensive. We make enough money each month by charging $5 per family that we are able to provide pizza and drinks. We ask families to provide a snack, dessert, or entrée to help cover the rest. If you need to rent a space, you may consider skipping the pizzas unless you are making a profit or charge an extra fee to families to offset the cost of the rental space. Contact local delis, grocery stores, or restaurants and see if they would be willing to donate some food for your group in exchange for advertising or tax deductions. Sponsoring a local autism social club is a great way to make families feel welcome in their establishment!
– Arrange for volunteers! Our most valuable asset is our volunteers. While we have occasional supervision and a person to work out personality conflicts or technology snafus, our tweens and teens are mostly self-monitoring. They enjoy being independent and not having adults hovering all the time. We asked for siblings to act as peer mentors and have found that to be a fantastic resource! Brothers and sisters who are also teens can help keep conversations going, assist with minor frustrations, and help alert adults in charge if anyone seems to need more attention or could benefit from some intervention. Volunteers help set up and clean up game rooms and dining areas, collect money and provide orientations for new families.
– If you are trying to recruit families for a new group, consider (cheap and easy) flyers and Facebook pages. Hand them out (and email .pdfs) to schools, local autism resource groups, and family and friends. If you have the benefit of a sponsor organization, see if they will post information on their website and in local publications.
– Be patient, flexible, and remain open to suggestions. There will be glitches, personality conflicts, and food shortages. Some months will run more smoothly than others. Do not be afraid to make changes when something is not working or allow the kids to try out new ideas. Trial and error and a big sense of humor go a long way in helping to bring a vision to life. You can make a huge difference in your community and build relationships that will benefit many families in need.