The Autism Society of Greater Akron Teams Up With Kent State for Adult Social Club
Individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) sometimes have a difficult time with social interaction and building relationships. The Autism Society of Greater Akron (ASGA) wanted to help those on the spectrum socialize with others freely and make friends by creating an adult social club.
Laurie Cramer, the executive director at ASGA, researched how the Autism Society of America affiliates designed their social club and created the ASGA social club based on their models.
The club was then made possible with two Kent State University affiliates and Wendy Cline, a support specialist and licensed social worker at the Autism Society of Greater Akron.
“People who are on the spectrum have a myriad of different levels of capabilities and talents,” Cline said. “One of the hardest things can be for individuals to recognize social cues used to communicate with each other. People who have autism often have poor eye contact, movements are sometimes repetitive and interests can be very narrow. So to connect socially or emotionally with other people can be very difficult.”
Cline expressed that it is not that the autism community does not want friendships, but because of the social challenges inherent in being on the autism spectrum, relationships can be hard to get started.
"As someone who has Asperger's, I can speak on the fact that struggling to form relationships and communicate with others can be very isolating," said Zachary Strickler, the neurodiversity coordinator at Kent State and a member of the governing board at ASGA. "So the idea that we can form a group for those who experience this is great."
The concept of creating the social club developed over a year ago, but ASGA was seeking experienced facilitators to assist with the social club. Strickler then became a facilitator, helping move the club forward.
"We could not decide whether we wanted it to be predominantly a social group or develop into something like a support group," Strickler said. "We eventually decided to develop a social group because we wanted it to be a positive environment and consider what other autism societies have done. We knew we would need two facilitators, so we reached out to Kent State seeking another facilitator."
ASGA reached out to Kent State's clinical Ph.D. program to find another facilitator, and Tess Gladstone, a Ph.D. graduate student in clinical psychology, was immediately interested.
"The whole idea and how they presented the idea to us of it being a fun social group for those who are on the spectrum was important to me and for me to be a part of," Gladstone said. "Even though I knew I wasn't going to get any hours toward my program, I knew this was an important way for the fields to collide and work together to create a group like this. I think it needs to be happening more often in different areas, so I was excited to be a part of it."
Gladstone said that her family connections and previous work experience with ASD have grounded her perspective on the social experience of ASD. Additionally, she worked as a day program supervisor and adult support professional in two different programs for adults with ASD in Cleveland.
"In those organizations, I loved coordinating programs and events and fostering connections between the individuals themselves but also between the individuals and the community," Gladstone said. "I also spent two years at the Yale Child Study Center, working on a research study for kids with anxiety and ASD."
Strickler expressed that this is not a formal partnership with Kent State, but it is strongly being considered for the future.
The adult social club is open to all ages of adults, and it meets every other week on the first and third Wednesday of the month via Zoom. The meetings start at 8 p.m. and typically last one hour.
"In the first 10 or 15 minutes of the meeting, participants typically talk about what they've done in the last two weeks, what's going on with their jobs, what movie they've seen and more," Cline said. "They all have a lot to share, and it comes from every direction. After that, there is typically some kind of scheduled fun like playing a game of Kahoots or Bingo, where one of the facilitators will design the questions."
Cline expressed that since the club started in August, there has been overwhelming interest in it.
"We sent out registration links online, and we had to close it because there were many who responded," Cline said. "Because this one group has been so successful, we are considering a second sign-up. We are hoping to continue to satisfy this great need."
ASGA is one of more than 70 affiliates nationwide that are part of the Autism Society of America, the nation's largest and oldest grassroots autism organization. ASGA serves Summit, Stark, Wayne, Portage and Medina counties. ASGA works locally to achieve its mission to improve the lives of all affected by autism.
For more information about the social club, visit autismakron.org.