There are many social groups in our society going on most days of the week, all organized around topics of interest or values that people share.
One particular group that meets in Newport Beach, California is a remarkable one. It may be one of only a couple of its type in the United States and the world. This group’s membership is not really to be envied, though. The price of admission is being a nonverbal autistic person who types to communicate. Another unusual aspect of this group is found in its name. It’s called Friendship Group stemming from the main goal of this group being to help people meet and form friendships.
Until recently, there have been widespread misconceptions about people with autism, especially nonverbal ones. The main misconception is that they have no theory of mind and no empathy. In other words, they do not have the ability to think or feel what another person is thinking or feeling.
Looking around the group, it’s obvious that autism can be confusing to look at from the outside of a person. They may appear that they are not interested or even walk away. This is mainly due to them having a body that does not cooperate with their brains. Their body language and facial expressions do not always tell one another what he /she is truly feeling. However, if time is taken to wait for the autistic person to type their thoughts and feelings, then there is no longer any misunderstanding.
A typical time together for this group is found under the shaded area outside the food court at the Bluffs Shopping Center. It can be cold and windy during the winter and hot and stuffy in summer, but the group comes faithfully like a pilgrimage to a shrine. Some travel over an hour drive to sit, visit, and share their lives with others who truly understand them.
At first, there is the initial flurry of parents and support staff getting food and drinks. Once the smell of French fries and Chipotle food fills the air, the group relaxes on the chairs and couches to discuss their latest news and plans for the future. The usual glances from people passing by don’t seem to bother the group today, because they are the majority here, not the odd ones.
From within the group, the occasional yell or jumping up or out of place body movement goes unnoticed because what’s important is sharing their hearts and having fun together. Jeremy (2018) who is 29 years old and one of the oldest members of the group describes it best when he says,
“Really the typing group is very important to me because I need really to see that there are others like me in the world…truly I need to see that other Typers exist because truly knowing that others are like you makes me feel more a part of some group within the larger population of humans.”
Another longtime member, Woody, (2018) describes his group experience when saying,
“Friendship Group is important to me because it is a vital chance to be around other young people who truly understand what it is like to be a non-speaker in a speaking world. Hear my voice through my friends, hear my friends through my heart.”
These quotes show the one accord in these members’ hearts as each shares the importance of community and finding friendships.
The idea of social groups and friendships being good for any individual’s overall well-being has reams of valid research behind it (Collingwood, J. 2016). The bottom line is that friends increase a person’s trust and health and can decrease their levels of stress. Great men all the way back from Aristotle and the philosopher Epicurus to more modern-day writers such, Mark Vernon, describe the importance of friendship. “In poverty and other misfortunes of life, true friends are a sure refuse” (Aristotle).
“The noble man is most involved with wisdom and friendship” (Epicurus). “A close friend is a mirror of your own self, someone with whom you realize that, though autonomous, you are not alone” (Vernon, 2006). All agreeing that a friend is good to sympathize with, be honest with, and to celebrate life. – I don’t like this.
Unfortunately, for this population of nonverbal autistic people this has been sorely overlooked. Now, as more nonverbal individuals learn to type to communicate, they are able to express their needs for friendships.
The history of this particular group dates back at least ten years, when three families took the chance to meet and see what the other’s lives were all about. They were brought together by a mutual person in their childs’ lives, Darlene Hanson. Hanson is a speech and language therapist who is world renowned for her work for teaching people to type to communicate.
She is the director of Communications Services at REACH, a nonprofit organization working with the special needs population. Hanson knows from God that her calling is to help the autistic community and open the minds of others to always assume competence, even when it is hard to see. In a recent interview with Hanson, she talked about why the group was formed and what she has seen since its conception. She tells how a long while ago she and one of the founding members of the group, Nancy and her typing son Nick, were at a conference in Syracuse for Typers.
She relays how the best part was spending time with other Typers which gave them the idea to try and form the Friendship Group. Hanson describes that over the years, she has seen the group members support and help each other. She discusses how their lifestyle and communication is paramount for them to share with each other because their challenges are different than the speaking world.
“I think it is wonderful that you are truly friends, in the same way any of us have friends. So often professionals, and even parents, think we have to teach autistic people friendship skills. I think the Friendship Group is proof that there is no replacement for getting together with people who you have something in common with.
Of course, we all need a way to connect with each other, and communication is the way we typically do this. The members all have become friends in the same way any of us becomes friends. You hang out, you share, and you care” (D. Hanson, personal communication, September 15, 2018).
The group members’ families saw the benefits of their kids forming friendships but also enjoyed the company of likeminded parents themselves. Being an advocate for a special need’s child can be isolating, so sharing ideas and information is so valuable. The group has steadily added to its numbers.
To this day it can be found to have up to 40 people in attendance. The older kids, now young adults, often meet other times for lunch or outside activities. Like all good groups, friendships have formed there and then developed into deeper relationships outside of group time. Even a weekly Bible Study now meets on Zoom, an internet chat room site, made up of members who originally met at Friendship Group. In another interview with William (2018), a member from both the Group and Bible study, he shares,
“Friendship group means so many things to me. We are like all young people, interested in friends, into talking about our dreams and want to be putting our thoughts in words so we can be heard. Friendship group has allowed me the chance to make friends who believe in me like I believe in them. Know how much I look forward to group each month.”
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The encouragement and support that the members show each other is part of the amazing bond that forms between them all. Only each member can truly identify and understand the culture and challenges they each face as non-speaking individuals in this world.
Wanting to be heard, other group members painstakingly took the time to focus and type their insights.
Austin (2018) “Being together means everyone can tell how they are working on stuff that is difficult to do and give encouragement to be more confident and independent”.
Bella, (2018) “I feel welcome and happy when I am here in their company. Sydney, (2018) “We share our dreams and accomplishments and we support one another”.
Peter, (2018) “I am inspired and encouraged by how cool and capable other typing members are. Really helps to have understanding loving friends”.
This group is dramatically changing (incorrect) long-held world views. The evidence is here. From formally always seeing autistics one way and now having to see them so differently. This community of friends has so much to offer each other and at the same time have taken apart old hardened beliefs about who non-autistic people are and what they need and want.
This grass roots Friendship Group will surely continue to grow and spread and has already been so successful that it has had members break away and start social groups in other geographical locations. On the outside they may, at times, look different or unusual, but on the inside, their desires, hopes, and dreams are the same as everyone else’s.
Cladis, K. (2017). Friendship Group [Digital image]. Retrieved 2018.
Collingwood, J. “The Importance of Friendship”. Psych Central, 17 July 2016, psychcentral.com/lib/the-importance-of-friendship/.
Horst, Mariska, and Hilde Coffé. “How Friendship Network Characteristics Influence Subjective Well-Being, by Mariska Horst; Hilde Coffé”. 51st Annual Transportation Research Forum, Arlington, Virginia, March 11-13, 2010, Transportation Research Forum, 1 Jan.1970, ideas.repec.org/a/spr/soinre/v107y2012i3p509-529.html.
Vernon, Mark. The Philosophy of Friendship. Palgrave Macmillan: November 2006.
This article was featured in Issue 98 – Fresh ASD Guidance For A New Year