By: Karen Wang
Everyone deserves to have friends. But sometimes life on Planet Autism can be lonely for people with autism, their siblings and parents. That’s why my family belongs to the Friendship Circle.
The Friendship Circle is an international non-profit organization that pairs children who have special needs with teen volunteers for recreational programs – an inclusive sports league, day camps, a life skills class and 20 other activities. Also on the menu are field trips for schools, sibling workshops, a parent support group, mom’s night out and Sunday morning basketball for dads.
Although the Friendship Circle is a Jewish organization, its mission is to serve families of all backgrounds, because “none of us is complete unless all of us are included.” This is the theme every year at the Walk For Friendship, the Friendship Circle’s annual fundraiser and community event with free entertainment for everyone: pony rides, bounce houses, a foam pit, life-size Angry Birds, laser tag and much more.
I invited everyone I know to join our team for the 2012 Walk for Friendship. A handful of brave souls showed up, and among them were my son Louie’s 17 year old volunteer Siena, her sister Lilia, who has Asperger Syndrome, and their mother. Siena has been coming to our house every Monday afternoon for the past year to play with Louie in the Friends At Home program. The first time she visited, Louie tried to run away. Siena followed him and quickly won him over. In fact, she won over everyone in our house. I interviewed Siena, because she is the perfect example of how the Friendship Circle works.
Karen: How long has your family been involved with the Friendship Circle?
Siena: My sister started attending Friendship Circle in September of 2009. I started volunteering there in January of 2010.
Karen: What is your favorite memory of the Friendship Circle?
Siena: It’s hard to have a favorite memory of Friendship Circle because every time I go there something new and great happens, but something really significant to me was the Walk for Friendship this past summer when you told me it was the first time Louie was ever excited to see people.
Karen: What have you learned from volunteering with Louie?
Siena: The biggest thing I have learned from volunteering with Louie is that everyone is different, but if our behavior and actions make us happy, no matter how different they are from society’s definition of normal, then we are leading a successful life. The best that we can be is when we are happy and it doesn’t matter if we’re different from others.
Karen: How has your volunteer work changed your relationship with your sister?
Siena: Volunteering has changed my relationship with my sister because it has made me a lot more tolerant. I’ve always been aware that the actions Lilia makes are affected Asperger Syndrome but never knew how to react to them or handle her, and would easily become frustrated. Friendship Circle has not only made me more understanding of her behavior, but has helped me know how to help her more easily.
Karen: What would you like to tell other young people about the Friendship Circle?
Siena: I want other young people to know that we should not dismiss special needs people just because we have a hard time understanding them. Kids with special needs are actually so intelligent and have such a unique perspective on the world that they have become my greatest teacher. I am so grateful to Friendship Circle for bringing me this opportunity and hope everyone gets to experience something like this in their lifetime.