Compatibility and shared interests are the roots of a relationship that can evolve into friendship. While friendship often arises organically, finding and maintaining friendships can be a confusing and painful process for some autistic individuals due to communication differences and social anxiety that stems from a history of being excluded or teased by peers. These experiences can deepen an autistic person’s sense of isolation.
During school years, autistic individuals are sometimes grouped together hastily and guided by those who neither appreciate nor understand their nuances and strengths. As a parent of an autistic young adult, I have witnessed my child being placed in social skills groups that are led by facilitators who neither have the knowledge nor experience of working with autistic individuals and therefore it is the label they see rather than the person in front of them. The problem is compounded when specialists sometimes rely on the autistic person to reach out to a neurotypical peer and do not consider the student’s prior attempts of finding friendship or their anxiety as a result of being ostracized in school.
It is autistic experiences that have inspired the development of AANE’s new mentoring program called Simpatico. Simpatico means compatibility and having shared interests. Simpatico is unique in that we pair autistic adults with one another based on their mutual interests, lived experiences, where they reside in Massachusetts, personal vision, and strengths. We match with intention and deliberation. As part of our intake and matching process, we ask all applicants to fill out an interest form that asks questions about their hobbies, aspirations, communication styles, age, social identities, vocational or collegiate experiences, and if they prefer to be a mentor, mentee, or have no preference. After we receive an interest form, we then schedule an in-person or virtual meeting to give applicants a chance to learn more about us, our current constituents, and ask any questions. Following our interview, we try to find the most appropriate mentor or mentee and schedule an informal virtual meeting for all of us to meet so that both parties have an opportunity to learn more about one another to see if it is a good fit.
At times, our matching process can take longer than we would like, but we are committed to making sure the mentorship experience feels natural and unforced. For our mentors in Simpatico, it is about feeling purposeful and being able to use their personal and lived experiences to guide others without judgment. For the mentee, Simpatico is about finding someone who not only shares common interests and similar perspectives, but truly gets what it is like to be autistic and living in an allistic world. Additionally, Simpatico offers opportunities for community building through periodic in-person and virtual get-togethers with all of our mentors and mentees. Our hope is that Simpatico connects autistic individuals to one another for the purposes of finding companionship and a community.
As much as I wish I could understand the experiences of my autistic son, I can’t. I am his proud mom, his top fan, his hangout buddy, but I am not a replacement for a peer that can relate to what he is feeling. This is what drew me to co-manage Simpatico, because it is more than just a professional opportunity, it is profoundly personal. Everyone needs a friend on their terms. Connection is the nucleus of life. Connection is what Simpatico is striving to do for the autism community by bringing people together. Without connection, we can feel lost. In Simpatico, it’s about people finding themselves and finding each other.
If you are interested in learning more about Simpatico, please checkout our web page.
Additionally, If you or someone you know is interested in applying to Simpatico, you may contact the program managers: Jay Eveson-Egler at Jay.Eveson-Egler@aane.org or Pam Palmucci at Pam.Palmucci@aane.org.