Families of Children with Autism Encourage Each Other

Not long after Catherine Fregosi’s five-year-old son, Holden, was diagnosed with autism last year, she started looking for a parent support group.

“I had been to parent-child groups with Holden before he started school and enjoyed the chance to connect with other parents and talk about what our children were up to developmentally,” Fregosi said. “As Holden had gotten older and the differences between his development and that of the other kids became more pronounced, I had begun to feel a little isolated from other families. When he was finally diagnosed, I began to wonder if there was a parent community we could join.”

That’s when Fregosi found Friends and Family of Individuals with Autism and Asperger’s, a support group started at Antioch University New England (AUNE) last October by faculty members Shelley Viles and Amy Blanchard. Viles is the director of AUNE’s Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) programs and the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders. Blanchard is an assistant professor in the Marriage and Family Therapy program. The support group is a collaborative endeavor of faculty and students from throughout the Department of Applied Psychology.

“This is bringing back a similar, peer-led support group that fell apart,” Viles said. “It’s bigger, it’s better, and we have support services for children, which the peer-led group was unable to provide. Another benefit is, because of the size of the support group, we often have sections based upon age, so parents or young children can meet separately from family of older teens and adults.

“Many parents who were in isolation now have the opportunity to talk with other parents who are in a similar situation. And it’s an opportunity for kids to socialize and have positive interactions with peers.”

Meeting monthly to talk and play
The group is held on the second Wednesday evening of each month, for ninety minutes, at AUNE’s Couple and Family Therapy Institute. Parents meet to talk over issues like stress, safety and relationships. Meanwhile, their children, those on the autism spectrum and their siblings, join in a variety of activities.

For the students, it’s an opportunity to learn about autism spectrum disorders with an eye to specializing in that field in their practice. Students from the Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT) program facilitate the parent group, while others, along with students from Clinical Mental Health Counseling (CMHC), ASD and ABA, run several children’s groups.

Dance/Movement Therapy (DMT) students teach expressive movement, focusing on body awareness and social skills. “Many of the children on the spectrum don’t have verbal language, so it’s useful to meet them on their level and to learn how to help them with awkward social skills,” said Christina Devereaux, core faculty member in the DMT program.

Tim Bobinsky, a middle school teacher who earned an ASD certificate this spring, plans to work with the group again this fall. “The nice thing about the group is that parents can bring their children along, and someone is going to be there to take care of them,” he said. “Parents of children on the spectrum have a difficult time finding someone to care for their children so they can go to a meeting.”

Because he teaches children on the autism spectrum, at Hillsboro-Deering Middle School in Hillsboro, New Hampshire, Bobinsky sees the value of the group. “It’s peer support. There is a trained facilitator, but, really, the group enables the parents to talk about their problems among themselves,” Bobinsky said.

Returning in September
The group takes the summer off, although members plan to get together informally. They also have a Facebook page where they swap advice and resources and announce workshops and events. When the group starts up again in September, Fregosi plans to be there.

“The Antioch group has been fantastic. It has been really important for me as a mom to remember that our family is not alone in dealing with our particular issues, and I certainly feel less isolated now than I did a year ago,” Fregosi said. “It can be a challenge to find appropriate activities for kids with autism and related diagnoses, and hearing about things that have worked for other parents is very helpful.”

Find out more about the ASD/ABA program and how to sign up for Friends and Family of Individuals with Autism and Asperger’s by contacting Viles at sviles@antioch.edu or calling 603-283-2145.