This post has been updated.
Mari-Jane Williams is a news design editor at The Washington Post and a regular guest contributor to On Parenting. She lives in Northern Virginia with her husband and two children, one of whom has special needs.
When Owen Donahue gets in the car to run errands with his father and immediately asks for his “buddy” Dianna Buckett, Kevin Donahue is reminded how much his son looks forward to the DC Autism Buddies program sponsored by the nonprofit organization DC Autism Parents. Owen, 5, is high-functioning, but like many children with autism spectrum disorders, he struggles at times to find the words to express himself appropriately. In this case, his excitement says it all.
“When he utters something that isn’t a direct response to some prompting, it means he really wants it,” said Donahue, who lives in Northeast Washington. “It puts it on par with sitting down at a table and asking for ice cream.”
The Autism Buddies program (think Big Brothers Big Sisters with a therapeutic twist) began in 2009 when Stephanie Mok, a graduate student doing a fellowship at NIH, approached DC Autism Parents president and founder Yetta Myrick, looking for volunteer opportunities. The two came up with the buddies program, which pairs recent college graduates with local children for two hours two Saturdays a month from October through May at a school in the District. A board certified behavior analyst trains the volunteers on how to work with and communicate with the children, said Myrick, whose son, Aidan Hadley, 7, has autism.
Each session begins and ends with a song and includes a snack and a craft activity, Myrick said. They also have guest speakers, sensory activities, outdoor play and games. The volunteers work with the children on social skills such as turn-taking and making friends. There is a $5 fee per session to defray the cost of snacks and activities. Myrick hopes to have enough volunteer power to provide buddies for up to 15 kids this year. Children in the program come from Virginia and Maryland as well as the District.
“I really saw a difference and change in [Owen] throughout the year,” said Buckett, 23, who is pursuing a master’s degree in public health at Johns Hopkins University. “He became more verbal, more social and more communicative, and was interacting with me and the other kids by the end of the program.”
While Owen plays with Buckett and the other children, Donahue visits with other parents who face similar issues. The group has become a sort of informal support network.
“You don’t have to explain things that you have to explain to other parents,” Donahue said. “It’s understood. That can build a really powerful connection among parents who might not otherwise come across each other.
“I think what [Owen] liked is that, like any other 5-year-old, he was playing with other kids,” Donahue said. “There’s this myth about kids with autism, that they are motivated to be nonsocial. In fact they’re just as social as everyone else, it’s just more difficult for them to understand and interact with kids in typical group settings. If you give them an environment that is designed for them, they love it.”
The first Autism Buddies session for the 2011-12 school year will be Oct. 2. For information, or to fill out an application to participate, visit the Web site for DC Autism Parents.