A sister’s attempt to help her autistic brother develop social skills became an initiative uniting people of all abilities.
My brother Troy is remarkable. I can ask him what day of the week any date or event will be on, in any recent or upcoming year, and he will reply without the slightest hesitation. I always thought he counted in his head somehow, but he replies too quickly for that to be the case.
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My brother also taught himself how to count to 20 in 10 different languages by watching YouTube videos when he was four. But, what amazes me most, is his ability to make me smile on any given day.
Troy is always ready to make me laugh with an endless list of cow knock-knock jokes when he thinks I look upset. Despite these strengths, most kids only seem to notice the challenges my brother faces.
Troy has been diagnosed with autism, so it’s hard for him to make conversation and take the initiative to socialize with others. Regardless, these challenges do not define my brother. He is sweet, and an amazing friend to those who get to know him.
What is Friend In Me?
Inspired by my brother, I founded and manage a group called Friend in Me, which connects kids with disabilities between the ages of eight and 18 with neurotypical students through online get togethers and games, such as Roblox, Minecraft, Pictionary, charades, checkers, tic tac toe, Connect 4, and 20 Questions.
This program is free and has grown to include over 100 kids with disabilities and volunteers. Originally all of the kids were local, but now some are joining from other parts of the country. We offer three Zoom sessions a week and kids can sign up as many times as they like. Prior to each session, participants are paired up with a volunteer.
Each buddy pairing is then sent into a separate breakout room where participants and volunteers have one-on-one conversations and play games. We try to pair up the same people each week, so buddies have a chance to develop lasting friendships and connections.
The impact of Friend in Me
Many parents have told me Friend in Me has given their children a real sense of belonging, a source of friendship, and a chance to improve their social and communication skills. I have also heard this directly from the kids involved in the program. They have shared with me how much they appreciate the opportunity to interact with students their own age, especially during the pandemic.
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One boy recently told me that Friend in Me has improved his social skills. He would occasionally ask me if he talked about one topic for too long, or said something that might have come off as socially awkward.
I’m glad that Friend in Me provides a safe place for kids to ask their buddies for advice and guidance when navigating social situations. I’m also happy that Friend in Me gives kids like my brother more chances to interact with neurotypical kids who will see them as more than their disability.
Bridging the gap between neurotypical and neurodivergent
Friend in Me has also given neurotypical students the chance to appreciate that kids with disabilities can be fun to hangout with and are not as different as they may previously have thought. When my close friend first joined Friend in Me, she was nervous and afraid that she would have nothing to talk about with her buddy, however, she quickly realized just how much they have in common.
My friend now participates in four Friend in Me Zoom sessions a week. She always tells me how glad she is that she got involved with the program—and how Friend in Me is the best part of her week.
My friend’s little sister, who is super shy, recently joined Friend in Me because one of the volunteers couldn’t make it on time, and now she insists on coming every week because she had such a fun time playing Roblox with her buddy.
I am constantly surprised by the talent, sense of humor, and heart these kids have shown me. I hope in some small way Friend in Me can eventually help lessen the stigma that society sometimes associates with having disabilities.
Forging connections and friendships
I think my favorite part of Friend in Me, however, is the friendships that have developed because of it. A girl that I have been buddies with since the beginning of the program, is now a really close friend.
We laugh about our mutual dislike of windy roads and boat rides, and we can’t wait until we can meet in person someday. Although everyone has assigned buddies, a close community has developed because many of us know each other and will sometimes stay on after the Zoom session ends to talk in the main room together.
One memorable Friend in Me Zoom was the week before Christmas. Two brothers had come on late, and although their assigned buddies were already gone by then, another volunteer and I talked to them about their favorite holiday movies. We all ended up watching How the Grinch Stole Christmas together for a while after the Zoom had ended.
Even though we do not all live near each other, Friend in Me gives kids an opportunity to connect with people they would not have met otherwise.Friendships develop through similar interests or fun activities.
Even though I have been in school for 12 years now, I believe my little brother has been my greatest teacher. Troy has taught me how to be more empathetic, patient, and understanding.
He has also shown me what it means to be a good sibling and friend. Although I started Friend in Me to help my brother and others like him learn and develop, I think along with the volunteers, I have grown just as much!
If anyone is interested in joining Friend in Me, either as a participant or a volunteer, email [email protected] or visit the website.
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