Autism Warrior: Gemma Bryan
Founder of Autism Aware Bears, a program that raises autism awareness through special stuffed bears found by or sent to families and kids, who are encouraged to share pictures of their adventures together on the AutismAwareBears Facebook page.
Gemma is based in North Lincolnshire in the UK, where she lives with her husband John and their children Billy and Isla. Isla was diagnosed with autism when she was three. Gemma quickly realized that while most people have heard of autism, many have little idea of its reality and how it affects individuals differently.
She decided to do her best to raise autism awareness and acceptance by running a local support group and starting a blog. Isla’s Voice — Our journey with Autism shares Gemma’s experiences with her family as they grow alongside Isla, reaching out to others on similar journeys and working to make the world a more understanding place for her daughter and others with autism.
In 2018, Gemma still had an overwhelming desire to do more in her campaign. She wanted to do something fun to reach out to as many people as possible with the autism community at its heart, especially children with autism. Inspired by similar projects for other causes, Autism Aware Bears was born.
There are two types of bears. Traveling bears are given to anyone going on a journey to take as companions and be left for another family to take on an adventure. Forever friend bears are gifted to adults and children with autism to keep as long as they want and share their unique experiences.
All bears wear a tag explaining their mission and are named after someone with an autism connection. People upload pictures of their journeys with them to the Facebook page so people can see just how widely the bears have traveled.
Gemma never expected her bears to be as well received as they have been; she would have been happy even if her efforts helped no more than a single person. Instead, she’s sent over 300 bears out into the world in less than a year. Some bears have even been taken to the Sahara Desert and the Arctic Circle.
Seeing both the happy faces of children with forever friend bears and the positive response to the traveling bears makes it a worthwhile endeavor. She counts every message telling her she’s made a difference to someone among her personal accomplishments.
Gemma’s greatest inspiration is her family. She admires her husband’s determination and how hard he works to support them, and her children are the driving force behind what she does. Billy does on his sister and won Young Carer of the Year for his autism advocacy and assistance with his mother’s projects. Isla is resilient and always true to herself. All three support Gemma in her efforts, and she wants to make them proud by doing her best.
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Gemma’s biggest goals are to ensure her family lives their best life and to help others in any way she can. She wants people to know support is available, and they are not alone. She also wants people to not just be autism aware, as awareness alone doesn’t change much.
Gemma hopes for children with autism to grow up in a more accepting society so that when they become adults, their community will understand and embrace them for who they are. She works towards this goal by continuing her current projects to see how far they can go, seeing if her work changes people’s perceptions, and starting more projects if needed.
Advice for families affected by autism:
Gemma’s biggest piece of advice is that nothing is set in stone. “At the beginning of your journey you may feel overwhelmed, guilty, confused, and doubt your own ability; it won’t always be that way,” she said. She believes parents are a child’s biggest advocates and should trust their instincts while taking each day as it comes. “You and your child will become the best versions of yourselves because you were always by one another’s side.” Things can change, and you should never give up hope.
This article was featured in Issue 91 – Great Back-to-School Strategies