Being autistic in a neurotypical world can be painful. This was literally brought home to me when my son Zach tearfully recounted the social challenges he encountered on the 2nd grade playground: “No one understands me, Mom. Not even you, because your brain works different than mine.” This soul-searing comment from one of my twin autistic sons was the catalyst for a new mentorship program being piloted in the Minneapolis metropolitan area starting in January 2019.
An Unmet Need
At that crystallizing moment, I realized that my kids and their autistic peers rarely, if ever, had any contact with adults who process the world like they do. The guidance they received came exclusively from “neurotypical” adults — parents, teachers, support staff, etc. — working to help them navigate a culture and society that was not designed to accommodate their challenges. How hard that would be, I thought, to go through life without knowing role models who are like you, who understand how you think and can show you paths to success. And why are the experiences, strengths, and unique perspectives of autistic adults so undervalued and untapped in our society?
These realities result in high rates of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and suicidal ideation among the 1 in 59 Americans who are autistic. For youth, these issues can be especially acute. Current statistics are grim: Two-thirds of young autistic adults will fail to secure a job or enroll in further education during the first two years after high school, 25 percent are socially isolated, and only 20 percent will live independently by their early 20s. To succeed and thrive, autistic young people urgently need opportunities to build positive self-identities and paths toward independence.
An Innovative Solution
The Autism Mentorship Program (AMP), a first-of-its-kind program, meets this need by pairing autistic youth and adults in meaningful, one-to-one, school-based mentoring relationships. Designed by autistic adults for autistic youth, AMP offers a resource that many of the mentors say was missing from their own lives — support for the present and hope for the future.
AMP’s vision is three-fold:
Creating the Program
We plan on serving youth from K-12, but our pilot will focus on high school students. With seven mentor/mentee pairs scheduled for a semester of mentoring sessions, the AMP’s upcoming launch is the result of over two years of work by a network of passionate community partners who have generously committed in-kind staff time, space, and other resources. They are:
Nothing like AMP has ever been tried in Minnesota, nor has a similar model been found elsewhere. The team has been conscious about designing, testing, and documenting this innovative program so it can be replicated and sustained anywhere.
Significance and Support
As a society, we are only beginning to value neurodiverse points of view, to recognize the creativity, intellect, and problem-solving skills autistic individuals bring to their communities. Ultimately, we hope the AMP initiative will not only improve the immediate lives of its mentor/mentee pairs, but also play a key role in moving our society from acceptance to celebration of the unique perspectives and strengths of neurodiverse people everywhere.
So how can people help? Our biggest challenge now is a classic catch-22: funders (understandably) want to see a proven track record of success before they invest in the program, but it’s difficult to get there without significant start-up money to sustain our first year of service. If you or someone you know wants to be part of the AMP mission, now is the time to reach out at www.autismmentorshipprogram.org.