Amy Blanchard: Helping Families Who Struggle Alone

The support group Friends and Family of Individuals with Autism and Asperger’s resumes meeting on September 14. Amy Blanchard, an assistant professor in the Department of Applied Psychology’s Marriage and Family Therapy Program, helped launch the group in 2010, and she talks about it here.

Q: You’re one of the founders of the Friends and Family of Individuals with Autism and Asperger’s. What convinced you that there was a need for this kind of support group in the community?

Amy Blanchard: I was approached by Shelley Viles, the director of the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) program at AUNE, with the idea to collaborate on starting a group. The ASD program is very active with the autism community in the region—Shelley, in particular—and she had had several inquiries from parents wondering where they could find a support group. We were all surprised there was nothing around.

The idea of running a group for families with children who have ASD is consistent with the mission of the Antioch Couple and Family Therapy Institute, which is to provide high-quality, low-cost and confidential clinical services to the residents of Keene and surrounding communities and to train excellent family therapists.

Our clinic is new, and we are still doing quite a bit of marketing, so we thought this would also help families to know we are a resource for them for family therapy, in addition to the support group.

Q: What do you see as the group’s greatest benefits for families with children who have ASD?

Amy: Support from a family-centered approach. I think that many families struggle with similar issues but struggle alone. It is wonderful to have a place where the whole family can come and vent, unload and get suggestions and education from others who are going through something similar or who have in the past.

The entire family is affected by ASD, so to have something for all, including siblings and those children with a diagnosis, seems great to me. I remember the first night, overhearing a child diagnosed with Asperger’s say to another, “This is great; we both have Asperger’s and we just met and we are not being socially awkward.” I also watched with a parent as her child participated in movement activities with the dance therapists. The mom teared up, because her daughter would not participate in other settings, but here she found a sense of comfort.

Q: The group is facilitated by faculty and students from several different programs in the Department of Applied Psychology. How does that collaboration help the parents in the group? How does it benefit your students in Marriage and Family Therapy and you as a teacher and a practitioner?

Amy: I think it helps us provide the multidisciplinary services I described above. As marriage and family therapists, we focus on the whole family—coping and adapting, couple relationships, sibling dynamics and so forth, but we have learned a ton from the ASD students about the diagnosis of autism. It’s the same with the dance/movement therapy program—I knew nothing about how to use movement therapeutically, so I’ve learned a lot.

The students are given the opportunity to learn from each other and share their expertise. In addition, it gives us as faculty another opportunity to train experientially. That is, we are there supervising the students’ work in real time. This is so much better than learning something and talking about it “as if.”

Q: The Friends and Family of Individuals with Autism and Asperger’s group starts up again in September. Do you anticipate any changes or improvements?

Amy: Yes. When the group started last fall, we really hit the ground running and learned a lot along the way. Initially we were expecting maybe twelve or so people to show up; our first night we had about thirty!

So we spent the first few months learning how to break up into smaller groups, how to manage the space and learning the needs of the participants. Now that is all under control and we can focus on enhancing and expanding.

In the spring we piloted the movement groups for some kids on the spectrum. It was fabulous, so that will continue, and we plan to offer a group for neurotypical siblings as well. I know the participants are also interested in having something tailored to a teen-aged group, and we are working on that as well.

Q: Talk a little about your work at AUNE.

Amy: My training is in medical family therapy, which is a specialty area within marriage and family therapy. I have long focused on how families organize around issues of health and illness such as Parkinson’s disease or cancer. I have trained with physicians and residents about how to integrate a holistic approach in our current medical system. I see the work with the ASD group an extension of this.

I honestly did not have any training in ASD prior to the group, and I have been learning a lot about the diagnosis in general. But I see that the same dynamics exist with any diagnosis, as families try to make meaning and to cope and are forced to reorganize around something they did not expect or necessarily want.

Amy Blanchard, a core faculty member in the Department of Applied Psychology’s Marriage and Family Therapy Program, joined the AUNE faculty in 2008. She is a licensed marriage and family therapist and a clinical member of the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy.

Read more about Friends and Family of Individuals with Autism and Asperger’s here.