Saturday, March 7, 2020

How to Create Social Groups for Autistic Teens and Adults

Photo © Jonathan Nowak | Flickr / Creative Commons
[image: Adults of varied races sitting and standing around a gaming table.]

Jeff at Spectrum Disordered

I have a long history with successful autistic social groups. I started my first in 2006, and although I moved out of the area eight years ago, it remains thriving and still operates under the same general principles. I’ve started several groups in rural areas (where people tell me “there isn’t enough interested people to make this work”).

Putting a social group or club together doesn’t have to be super complex, but I think people need to have a clear sense of what it is and what it is not. If you are looking at setting up your own, I would offer the following guidelines.

The Social Group is the Speed Date

Speed Dating is a type of get-together in which people interested in finding a person to date gather. Attendees are introduced to each other (usually by pairing off and talking for a few minutes before rotating to introduce themselves to a new person) and then people mutually interested are given each other’s contact information.

The important concept of applying “speed dating” to a social group is not the formalized nature of the speed dating setup, but that the group is not the end-all social interaction. The point is to help people make natural and real friendships, not to occupy people’s time for a couple of hours a month. Not every autistic person is going to enjoy hanging out with every other person, so the goal is not that the group be everything to everyone, but that it is a way to facilitate people connecting and developing real friendships and to take those friendships and build on them outside of the group. One shows up to speed date not to have a bunch of 5-10 minute dates, but to find people they want to have REAL dates with and to give them an opportunity to meet, make the connection, and hopefully make arrangements to develop a real friendship. Same general idea here.

In our model, our typical social group took the form of a game night. People were encouraged to bring snacks and a game they were interested in playing with other people. A typical night would start with introductions, and people that brought games would introduce the game. People would peel off to play whatever game they wished, eat food and generally hang out. Apples to Apples and Jenga were two favorites that were accessible and got pulled out most nights. One night that stands out was most of the attendees playing through an impromptu Dungeons and Dragons module!

What would be very typical is that there would be larger groups playing some games, smaller groups playing others, and pairs engaged in a two person game here and there as well.

Autistic Owned and Led Space

A key caveat of social groups I set up is that having an autistic identity was a requirement to enter the space. The adult social group was strictly an autistic-only meeting.

We had our reasons. One key reason is once other people were allowed in, it stopped being our space, and our social group would become a social skills group, with people, well-meaning or no, feeling a need to “teach” us how (they thought) we should socialize. We would find this creep in in both subtle and VERY unsubtle ways.

With non-autistics present, conversations would become sterilized and censored. Very quickly we realized that a clear draw of our social group for many people was that our group was the sole opportunity they had in their lives to have a conversation that would not eventually end up getting reported to their parents, and that was more valuable than gold. I will never forget the one person who showed up to a social club meeting, and in his introduction blurted out “Is anyone a furry? I feel like I am and would love to talk about it with somebody but my parents can’t know.” The group that night took a quite unexpected direction!

Keeping secrets is a hallmark of true friendships.

All that said about the reasons for it being autistic-only space, a goal was for the group to be accessible to anybody that wanted to be there and for plenty of people, that would mean they needed support to be available. We settled on meeting at libraries, where we could take up meeting space for the group while still having a “hover zone.” Parents and supporters could mill around the library and still be a moment away if needed, while the person could have fully solo social interactions.

Another challenge of the “no neurotypicals allowed” policy is helping people through social anxiety of coming to a new place and meeting new people. We always reiterated that we would do anything we could feasibly do to help somebody feel comfortable in the space without their supporters immediately present and would often do things like meet the person and tour the room beforehand, meet in the room with a smaller segment of the social club regulars and other things to help break the ice. However, during club meetings, autistics only.

If the social group will not be as firm on having a “no NT” policy, then the group needs to have a clear understanding with non-autistic people that they are visitors in autistic space and need to act accordingly. Teen groups may require some degree of adult coordination, but leadership of the group should still be vested in autistic attendees.

Another dynamic of autistic-led space is it minimizes situations where participants are unwilling. Not every autistic person is looking to make friends, with other autistics or anyone else. Another firm rule we had is that people coming to our social group needed to have a clear desire to be there. We had neither the interest or the capacity to be a respite service for people without interest in hanging out for a few hours, or a group to “convince” people they should want more friends. However, if the lines between a social space and a “teaching” space get blurred, all the sudden you begin to find your social group is full of people that got forced to be there.

A Clear Line Between Adult and Teen Groups

When launching my first social group, I had the intent of it being for ages 18+, but didn’t feel I wanted to be super firm on that point. I soon found that I needed to paint a clear distinction and keep the space adult-only. The issue is related to the censorship issue above: people wanting to have conversations about adult topics, with not enough people in their life willing to have non-judgmental conversations about the same, and so conversations would drift into conversation about sexuality and relationships, drinking, licit and illicit drugs. These were excellent conversations and we appreciated that a benefit people found of the group was an opportunity to have conversations like this, but obviously not the type of conversations we would feel comfortable extending to minor children.

For teen groups, we tended to structure things with some degree of adult supervision and often more specific activities offered. We seemed to find that many teens were more interested in coming to do something identifiable rather than the primary objective being “social.” Minecraft, Pokemon play sessions, science demos, anything that seemed to match the interests of the people interested in attending. One of my favorites was making LED throwies!

Every Autistic Person (and Gender) Welcome

While people that attend a social group have zero obligation to be friends with everyone they meet as part of a group, they do have an obligation to make the group space friendly, welcoming and accommodating to all. It was very important to cultivate a culture that everybody was welcome and that the group would help police this.

establishing a culture of inclusion helps the group respect that everyone should have the opportunity to make friends—if you don’t personally like somebody, that is fine, you should feel no obligation to socialize outside the group. However, you do have an obligation to make sure they feel welcomed in the group itself, just as the group welcomed and included you.

Another consideration is that in any group like this, specific attention NEEDS to be paid to making sure that non cis autistic males also have a great experience in the group, and many female presenting autistic people simply do not have good social experiences hanging out with other autistics. You need to make sure that the experience of female-presenting attendees to your group is NOT a steady cavalcade of propositions to date (or to simply skip the dating and move on to something else).

An unfortunate reality of autistics and dating is that many autistics are quite motivated to date but do not feel they have enough opportunities. They often get reinforced to believe that the “perfect match” for them is another autistic person, so, they come to a social group and meet a person of the gender they are looking to date! And fifteen other cis autistics looking for dates also meet that person! And what results is many of those people make a pass, all/most are rebuffed, and some may get angry and direct their anger at the person rebuffing them. If you are the person at the center of all of this, do you come back to experience that with new (or the same) people next month?

We were not interested in standing in the way of a romantic/intimate relationship between mutually consenting group attendees, in fact I know of several relationships that started out of social groups I created. While we weren’t interested in barring people from exploring relationships with mutual interest, our general ground rules were to ask people to allow friendships to develop and then feel out relationship interest, and tried to make it very clear that asking somebody out that you only knew through the group had a VERY low chance of success. For people in a leadership role, we would also pay some closer attention to what interactions were going on in the room, and gently interceding if need be.

Consider an Online Component

A Facebook group or other social media component to the social group can help people feel more comfortable attending and connecting, can help further along relationships, and can help coordinate group activities. These groups often dwarf in-person attendance!

I’d recommend similar rules apply to online space: autistic identities only, group members need to show mutual respect, don’t harass people looking for dates.

Go With the Flow

More important than any specific format is that the group accommodates the wishes of the people involved. These loose guidelines worked generally well for groups I put together, but I would have been more than ready to scrap or tweak things that simply weren’t working for people interested in being a part. The goal is to make a comfortable environment for people to connect. Honestly, if setting up a new group in 2020, I’d probably seek more of an advocacy activism format to act as a the “social grease.”

A final note is that while I personally believe that a critical component of my autistic identity is staying socially connected with my “tribe,” autistic friendships should not be pursued or encouraged just as a matter of course. For many autistic people, a fulfilling social life probably has a mix of people and experiences involved, and those may or may not include other autistic people.