For six years, I worked with speech pathologists, ABA therapists, and IEU planning to teach autistic adults and children one-on-one. The in-home class structure, as many know, is very intense and demands much hard work on behalf of both the autistic child and the adult.
My students’ time was split between several hours of study and several hours of fun, activity, and implementing their talents.
In each autistic individual I worked with, all had tremendous empathy. It took time, nurturing, patience, and a sense of trust. Once that blossomed, they loved being around me and going out and having fun. I did my best to boost their self-esteem, build their social skills, and bring out their talents. The people I worked with all had very high intelligence in animation, the arts, and technology.
One and a half years ago, after working as a special needs educator for six years and interning at Quest to Learn in Manhattan, I was walking with my rescue dog Sonny and came up with this fantastic idea: Paw It Forward NY.
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If you are a senior citizen, physically disabled, or cancer patient, and you own a dog, Sonny and I will pick up your dog at your home and provide it with fun, treats, and two walks through nature, hiking trails, or parks. We also very much believe in the human spirit and raising people up when they are going through a very tough time.
We spent much time with our first members, and they would speak of their life stories, families, and what they were going through. Should a pesky, somewhat nosy neighbor or two want to know all their information, I would simply say “I’m the dog walker. He (or she) is doing just fine.”
Through much hard work on foot and in marketing, I found myself with over 68 volunteers, 38 who were being used, and lots and lots of dogs. I was published in 10 local newspapers in Forest Hills, Queens (where I reside) and in NY Post, as well as on the channel New York News 1 with CBS calling. I only assigned one to two volunteers per household so there never was a “revolving door” and a great human and pet connection could be formed with the volunteers.
It became very successful and now has a small chapter in Vermont. It also expanded into two more communities and into the West Village with cancer patients at the NYC chapter of Gilda’s Club.
Because of my passion for special needs children, with a primary focus on autism, I thought “What if I could have parents who have an autistic adult or child and have them volunteer and work with a member?” I noticed with former students that having Sonny present opened them up; they really loved being with him where before they were very shy and timid. My goal for this year is to connect parents with autistic children and adults with nice seniors.
It teaches compassion, values, outdoor engagement, socialization, and love for animals, all of which I have found to be therapeutic and good for them. The seniors, as do all members, save $500 to 600 per month on our services.
They do not always have much human contact and get lonely. The children and parents provide stimulation, conversation, human connection, and put a great smile on the seniors’ faces. Out of all the volunteers, the seniors especially love the children and teens and enjoy seeing them.
I found in my research and life experience that some may think autistic children and adults don’t have compassion. I’ve found that is far from the truth. They have lots of it! You just need patience, understanding, and the ability to see things from their side.
I always say to the newest members, autism is not a disability. It is the ability to see the world differently. How beautiful and fantastic is that? So for this coming year this program has now set its sights on new heights.
It will bring communities together in a positive light and showcase autistic people doing amazing things, erasing some pre-conceived judgements people may have and replacing them with truth. There will be more to come, due in part of my beautiful godson Kaz who has autism and inspires me every day. As I always say to my dog Sonny, “The sky’s the limit!”
This article was featured in Issue 99 – Navigating Relationships With Autism