Neurodiversity social club helps autistic kids make friends

A program for Saint John youth whose brains work a little differently than most of their peers is trying to grow to meet the demand.

“My goal is to help these children feel understood and seen,” said occupational therapist Hannah Gray, who doubled her capacity to 16 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 behavior and emotional regulation .

Due to these conditions, many club members cannot attend school full time.

Find out how the Neurodiverse Social Club creates a safe space for children

This Saint John social program gives neurodiverse youth a chance to connect and make friends.

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 it’s worth it,” Gray said. “So when they come here they’re often exhausted. They talk about low self-esteem and…it’s heartbreaking.”

Gray organizes activities and games that get the children working together. The high school group recently made an animated film using clay figures and homemade sets.

She also encourages students to describe what they like about each other because, she says, they rarely hear kind words from their peers.

Hannah Gray, owner of InfinOT Occupational Therapy, works with college kids in her neurodiversity social club. (Graham Thompson/CBC)

Fifteen-year-old Casey Saulnier said most of the time she spent in middle school, the other kids were mean.

Casey, who identifies as trans, was bullied and her family said she was physically attacked.

When she wasn’t pushing away negative words or unwanted attention, Casey felt left out 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 it. It really hurts.”

Create positive memories

Through the social club, Casey said, she made new friends. They share similar interests such as video games and hockey. Perhaps more importantly, they listen to his ideas and opinions.

“Here they let me say what I wanted 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 of college,” said his mother, Amanda.

“She had no friends. She would hate us when she got home.”

Casey Saulnier, her brother Jase, Amanda Saulnier and Jason Saulnier. (Submitted by Amanda Saulnier)

The next clubs should start the first week of July.

Gray said she is hosting a group of eight middle schoolers and another group of eight high schoolers who will meet on six consecutive Mondays.

Each session lasts about an hour and a half. Gray also relies on the support of a speech therapist.

The fee for six weeks is $350. Families may be eligible for financial assistance through the Family Support Program for Children with Disabilities. In this case, Gray bills the government directly.

Amanda said Casey’s expenses were fully covered and she hopes to get more support for the next session.

“Hannah sees Casey as a leader,” Amanda said. “Now we see it flourish.”

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