I’ve been asked what the Friendship Circle means to me and my family.
When my family joined Friendship Circle in January 2010, our plan was just to visit the building for open play on the days when school was closed. My 8 year old son, who has autism, was too anxious about separation to participate in any of the volunteer programs; and my 3 year old son was too young for the sibling programs.
That’s the way we rolled back then. Most people don’t grasp the sense of isolation felt by many families who have children with special needs.
Our extended family does not live in Michigan, so we can’t count on them for support. Our neighbors know us as the people who don’t take care of their lawn and walk their wide-awake kids outside at really strange hours, so we can’t count on neighbors for support.
Friends and acquaintances faded away as our ability to socialize evaporated because of our children’s needs. Our kids don’t do well with babysitters, so we just planned to spend every waking hour with our kids – and on Planet Autism the waking hours are around the clock. All we wanted was a place to play when we had nothing on our schedule, no one to visit, nowhere else to go.
Visits To Friendship Circle
I brought my boys to open play as often as possible. They both thrived with the different types of sensory input in the activity rooms upstairs. They loved the drums, water, lights, sand, swings, art projects and balls.
Every visit offered something new to them. My younger son was having difficulty with structured activities, so I would bring him to the activity rooms while his older brother was in school to help him learn how to moderate his reactions.
Whenever my older son needed special attention, he asked for a trip to the Friendship Circle with either my husband or myself. My children don’t like big parties, so the four of us came for birthdays and holidays, too.
Joining a Program
When summer arrived, we decided to try a volunteer program to see how our older son adapted. He was very nervous. At home, he doesn’t even like it when I step out of the room. It was hard for him to spend time with a person he had just met, knowing that his mother was somewhere else in the building.
At the same time, my son realized that the person he had just met wasn’t holding a fussy 3 year old child (like I was), so he suddenly had a little bit more freedom to explore on his own terms. He realized that, without parental supervision, he could ride the elevator as much as he wanted. I began to see the possibilities.
At the last minute we decided to sign him up for a week of summer day camp. I figured that I could pull him out if it wasn’t working for him. But he loved it. He was warmly welcomed for a new adventure every morning, sometimes to places he already knew and loved like the Toledo Zoo, sometimes to a place new to him like the JCC. He became more comfortable around people, and began initiating conversations more often. He didn’t want the fun to end. So I signed him up for more programs.
One of the programs, Friends at Lifetown, offered a volunteer to play with my younger son as well. My younger son is extremely sensitive, shy and serious. He is very much aware of his brother’s disability, and it weighs heavily on him. He was assigned the sweetest, quietest, gentlest volunteer, and soon she was the only person he would speak to at the Friendship Circle.
With time, he began to notice other siblings around his age at the programs, and he began to form friendships with them. Now he runs around with a noisy gang of kids making all kinds of trouble. That’s what I call progress!
My Personal Growth
The Friendship Circle has also provided me with an opportunity for personal growth. One day I was relaxing in the parent lounge, and another parent noticed my ASK ME ABOUT AUTISM t-shirt. She said, “You should write a blog about that t-shirt!” Well, it just so happens that I have an Ivy League degree in humanities. I left my doctoral program to be a full-time caregiver for my disabled son. Writing and research are what I do best.
I started submitting blog articles based on my research about my son’s disability, my conversations with other parents in the special needs community and all the little successes I’ve had at home. My articles in turn have opened up more conversations, and I’ve invited other families to visit the Friendship Circle with me. I became a part of the circle.
My first impression of the Friendship Circle was the banner in the driveway that says, “No Family Stands Alone.” That promise stays with me every time I return here with my children, and that promise has compelled me to look for more ways to support the Friendship Circle’s mission – because my family isn’t alone anymore.
Become a part of the circle – walk with us on Sunday, September 2.