February 15, 2010

Adults with autism gain friends, confidence

An Emory Autism Center pair takes an outing to a Decatur church to pack lunches for the homeless.

Social nuances are challenging for Andrew Grimes.

The 26-year-old supply tech tentatively responds to questions with one-word answers, averting his eyes.

Diagnosed with autism at age 3, Grimes has struggled to form lasting friendships, says his mother, Carolyn. An only child estranged from his father, he developed solitary hobbies, such as drawing, journaling and solving puzzles.

“He has moved from not wanting to be around people at all, in a nest where he felt safe, to now wanting to be out with people a lot,” explains Carolyn Grimes. “He’s come a long, long way.”

Helping to smooth the transition is the Emory Autism Resource Center’s “Get a Life” program, which brings together adults with autism and volunteers. The pairs, matched by age and interests, go on weekly outings to play sports, watch movies, volunteer with community organizations or just hang out.

So far, the center has recruited more than 15 volunteers from the community – about half are Emory students – who commit to spending at least two hours a week for a minimum of six months with their participants.

Started as a pilot project over the summer, the program quickly expanded to fill a void. The center’s Adult Community Assistance program provides ongoing services to about 40 adults with autism ages 18 and up. Support includes individualized services, social skills workshops and monthly social gatherings hosted by Emory’s chapter of Best Buddies International, which pairs students with people with developmental disabilities. Last spring, the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity began hosting a monthly party for center participants.

While monthly activities are meaningful, most of the participants live at home and have varying degrees of social skills.

“They want a social life,” says Toni Thomas, the center’s program manager for Family and Adult Services.

“Very few of us have only one friend,” she adds. “It’s about developing a circle of support.”

The center is seeking volunteers from across the Emory community, including faculty and staff. While all are welcome, the biggest need is for males ages 18 to 45, Thomas says. All volunteers must provide a few professional references and pass a criminal background check.

Since autism affects the brain’s normal development of social or communication skills, a person with autism may appear shy or withdrawn, stand too close when speaking or have difficulty sparking and maintaining a conversation. As with anything, practice is essential, notes Thomas.

Thomas matched Grimes with Mike Waldron, a senior at Clayton State University and an aspiring school psychologist. The duo swaps stories about shared interests, including tennis, camping and music. Waldron regales Grimes with college life dramas while Grimes, who never finished college, discusses working in inventory at North Fulton Regional Hospital.       

“I’m actually quite surprised,” Grimes says. “I didn’t think I’d get along real well with guys.”

Waldron volunteers with Grimes and with two other center participants. Over time, he says, the men began opening up, sharing weekend plans, a love of reading or a fascination with actress Jessica Alba.

For Carolyn Grimes, who has been encouraging her son for years to connect with male peers, the program is cause for hope.  

“Andrew told me the other day, ‘I guess I really have a guy friend now,’” she says. “He’s becoming more and more confident that he can do this.”

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