Neurodiversity social club helps autistic youth make friends
Saint John teen bullied at school finds a place where she can be herself
A program for Saint John youth whose brains work a little differently than most of their peers' is trying to grow to keep up with demand.
"My goal is to help these kids feel understood and seen," said occupational therapist Hannah Gray, who is doubling her capacity to 16 spaces in July.
The "neurodiversity social club" is open to students with autism, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other conditions that affect behaviour and emotional regulation.
Because of these conditions, many club members are unable to attend school full time.
And when they are in school, they say, they feel isolated because they are different.
"These kids are constantly trying to explain who they are and what they need and why they need it and that they're worth having it," Gray said. "So when they come here, they're often exhausted. They're talking about low self-worth and … it's heart-breaking."
Gray organizes activities and games that get the kids working together. The high school group recently made an animated film using plasticine figures and home-made sets.
She also encourages students to describe what they like about each other because, she said, they rarely hear kind words from youth their own age.
Fifteen-year-old Casey Saulnier said most of the time she spent at middle school, other kids were mean.
Casey, who identifies as trans, was bullied, and her family said she was physically assaulted.
When not fending off negative words or unwanted attention, Casey felt excluded because of her autism.
"All the other students automatically push me away and act like I don't exist," she said.
"I don't like that. It really hurts."
Making positive memories
Through the social club, Casey said, she's made new friends. They share similar interests such as video games and hockey. Perhaps most importantly, they listen to her ideas and opinions.
"Here they actually let me say what I want to say and we end up becoming friends," she said.
Casey's parents both agree that being part of the club has been a positive experience.
"Casey has no positive memories from middle school," said her mother, Amanda.
"She had no friends. She would hate us when she came home."
The next clubs are scheduled to start the first week of July.
Gray said she's hosting a group of eight middle school students and another group of eight high school students who will meet on six consecutive Mondays.
Each session is about an hour and a half. Gray also relies on support from a speech language pathologist.
The fee for six weeks is $350. Families may qualify for financial assistance under the Family Supports for Children with Disabilities Program. In that case, Gray bills the government directly.
Amanda said Casey's fees were totally covered and she's hoping to get some more support for the next session.
"Hannah sees Casey as a leader," Amanda said. "Now we see her flourishing."