By: Dena (TRUE Mentors Guardian)
A huge HELLO to the TRUE Mentors family!
My name is Dena, and I am the mom of twin boys, Keith and Ryan, who are part of the TRUE Mentors program. Keith and Ryan are 15 years old, and are both diagnosed with autism and other disabilities.
We have been part of TRUE Mentors for many years now, officially and unofficially. I say “unofficially” because both boys waited a very long time to be matched with their mentors. Due to their autism, it was very difficult to find the perfect match for them. And listen, I totally understood!! Volunteering with children with autism can be very stressful.
The parents are very nervous to give up control of their children’s safety to someone they just met, no matter how wonderful they are and how well they have been vetted. The children can be very agitated when working with someone new and any changes in routine can be stressful \. And of course, the mentors are taking responsibility of a child with autism in and of itself can be very stressful. Even more so if the mentors are not trained to work with children with Autism or other special needs.
There are so many variables involved in matching a mentor with a child with autism. As the saying goes… if you have met one child with autism, you met ONE child with autism.
When you have a typical child involved in a program such as this, you are really focused on matching up the interests of mentees and mentors and working out a schedule to meet. Once that match is made, the focus becomes making plans to go to programs, events, and other activities. Seems easy enough, right??
However, when you add into the mix a child who has autism, the process is significantly different. It can become very challenging to make a successful match. You first need to find a mentor who is open to being matched with a child with autism. That can be very difficult. Mentors can become available but not feel comfortable being matched with a child with autism. That was a problem my family faced initially when we applied to TRUE Mentors. Families can be on a waiting list for a long time due to this. And, once a match is finally made, the path to becoming a successful match can be rough. The process will be very different for a mentor and a child with autism. It may take a few visits for that child to be comfortable with you. It may take more visits for you to be comfortable with that child. Moving on to independent activities may take quite some time. Throughout this process, you will be trying to gain the trust of parents who are completely overwhelmed by the idea of having their child in another individual’s care all the while being overjoyed with the fact that this is actually happening!
Here are some great tips if you are asked to be matched to a child with autism. Before you say no, be open to the possibility that this may be a great match for you!
1. Do your research. Learn about autism, and the behaviors that stem from the struggles and challenges our children face every day. There are so many resources out there that can guide you. The more educated you become, the more successful this potential match will be. Before my children were diagnosed, I knew nothing about autism. It’s OK not to know. But when you know, everything falls into place.
2. Ask questions! Then ask some more questions! Make a list of questions and concerns before you meet the family and your potential match. You want the family to know that you are genuinely interested in connecting with this child, and the more information you have, the stronger that connection will be. By asking questions, you will make the family feel that you are open to learning about this child’s needs and providing those needs during your time together. They will appreciate your honesty and curiosity. Trust me, the family will love you for this!
3. Talk directly to the child. Always. Engage that child in conversation at all times. Look that child in the eye when you talk. That is when the true connection is made!
4. Do not leave that meeting until you learn about the child’s likes and dislikes. This way, if you decide to move forward with the match, you will be better equipped to engage that child and provide the best opportunities for some fun!
5. Be open and honest with TRUE Mentors, the family, and most importantly, with yourself. It will be disservice to everyone involved if you agreed to be matched with a child with autism and you are not comfortable doing so. Despite the misconceptions, children with autism DO connect with others. Before you make that commitment, make sure you are truly ready to take that chance, you are able to be flexible, and you are willing to do everything you can to make it work before you say it is not working. It’s OK to say it is not working out. Always remember that, and do not let that deter you from hanging out with a great kid!
I can only give one very important piece of advice if you decide to be matched with a child with autism – make sure you are willing to step out of your comfort zone and step into this child’s world. Your outings may look quite different with a child with autism. There may be sensory issues involved where places you can visit become limited. Or a child may have a singular interest and you will need to repeat an outing week after week. Just roll with it, I promise you it will be a beautiful journey!
If after reading this some of you are still hesitant to be matched with a child with autism, please keep an open mind. They are AMAZING kiddos! Simply amazing! They will teach you more than you will ever teach them. You will learn about unconditional love and unwavering compassion. They will show you that every milestone, no matter how small, is actually a pretty huge deal. They will instill in you a greater appreciation for those with differences.
We are so happy to be a part of the TRUE Mentors family! Keith and Ryan’s mentors have changed their lives! They are true angels in disguise. They have taken the challenge head on, without question and without hesitation. Over the years, I have come to love and appreciate them, our candid conversations about the boys, and their willingness to remain committed to them throughout these tough times. We are truly blessed!