New Club on Coast Helps Autistic Teens to Find Friends
Being a teenager can be very difficult for some, but being a teenager with autism can be even tougher. In fact, at times, it can feel downright impossible. Autism is just one of the sectors of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), which includes a wide variety of disorders that impair a child’s ability to communicate and interact with others. Chris Mills, a parent of an autistic teen, says just getting through an average school day can be exhausting for her teenage son.
“Many kids at school find autistic kids different, and many autistic kids just don’t understand all the social rules,” Mills said. Coping with the everyday challenges of school life sometimes doesn’t leave time or energy for autistic teens to then navigate the social minefields that make up a teenager’s landscape.
To help her teen and several other autistic teens along the Coast, Mills and other parents created a group, so their kids would have an accepting and welcoming place to go hang out and meet friends.
“We decided to form the group because there are not any social opportunities in the area for autistic teenagers,” Mills said. “My son has a hard time making friends and he asked me to start a group. I am constantly looking for and trying new activities for him, such as chess club at the library. I usually recognize moms at these events on the same mission.”
Mills said she exchanged contact information with several of the parents so their teens could meet up. From there, the group just continued meeting and expanding.
Sonia Pierce, who also has an autistic teenager, said several participating teens were about to hit a “fluctuation of change in their lives” as they entered middle school or high school for the first time.
“This became a wonderful opportunity for my son to socialize in a quiet, safe, nurturing environment with others of the same nature as him,” Pierce said. The Gulf Coast Autism Teen Group, hosted its first meeting at the Ocean Springs Library in April and now meets once a month. Since April, the group has gone bowling and roller skating together, had a bonfire at Front Beach, and swam together at a pool party. In just a short time, the group has grown from four initial parent organizers and their teens to seven core families and up to about ten teenagers, with roughly twenty members following their Facebook page.
The group has future plans to possibly take a skiff trip to Davis Bayou and to meet up to do painting projects at B.Y.O. Brush Studio in Ocean Springs. They may also begin meeting informally at the Ocean Springs Library on Saturdays to play games. Pierce said the group provides a physical outlet of activity that is not too loud or overstimulating to the teens, many of whom are sensory-sensitive or experience extreme separation anxiety.
Mills’ 17-year-old son, Andrew, said the group means a lot to him. He said friendships formed in this group differ from the relationships he holds with other teens.
“It gives me a chance to socialize with people when I don’t normally [get to],” he said. “I don’t have many other friends, and I feel more comfortable around [the other group members] than I do with others.” “Here, we don’t have to awkwardly small talk or anything,” he said. “We can just get straight to the games and talk as if we’ve [always] been friends.” Pierce’s 14-year-old son, Grant, has improved in speech and expression as a result of the gettogethers.
“Our teens have an especially hard time with expressing themselves as teenagers,” she explained. “But Grant and the other teens have grown so much as people… they are more readily able to express themselves.” “We welcome all teenagers, autistic or not, to our group,” Mills said. In fact, several of the siblings attend and have become a sort of model of good behavior to those with autism.
“They are taught appropriate expression and communication by watching the other siblings that come,” Pierce added.. “This helps raise their self-esteem.”
The group is also a way for parents to lend each other support. This bank of resources and information can be crucial to parents who may still be coping with a diagnosis. “Some families don’t know what’s going on with their child [at first],” explained Pierce. “They know something’s not right, they know he or she is quiet or different, but they are just lost.”
“We all need to be aware of it and understand it,” Pierce said. “It is a condition that affects expression and socialization, but it’s not necessarily a devastating condition.” “When you find out your child is affected, there are things you have to let go of,” Pierce concluded. “That letting-go process is difficult. But, at some point, you get to the place where the same arms that open up to let go also open up to embrace. We want to help them. We are here to support and include them.” For more information on the Gulf Coast Autism Teen Group, contact Chris Mills at (912) 4929508 or firstname.lastname@example.org or Sonia Pierce at (601) 947-5688.
Tracy D. DeStazio is a freelance writer and editor living in Biloxi. She has been married to her high school sweetheart for 23 years and they have three children. She feels grateful and blessed to have the opportunity to write about some amazing parents — such as Chris Mills and Sonia Pierce — who love their kids to the moon and back!