Social hubs for autistic youth
We asked 200 autistic teens what they wanted.
They all said ‘a place to hang out.’
To listen to our podcast about the launch of our social hubs click here.
Following is a sample of the interview.
Bec: Just before we got on the podcast you were telling me that partly I inspired you to get going with the social hubs at The A List, I had no idea, can you tell us about that?
Madeleine: Yeah, I knew you were an autistic adult and I wanted to ask you questions, so I had this idea about the social hubs for autistic youth and I shared it with you and you were an immediate YES this is great, you’ve gotta do it; and if it wasn’t for that, I don’t know that I would have taken the leap. There was something about how certain you were, that made me go, this is good, this going to work.
Bec: For myself, I never really had a place to go like that and I just thought, man that would be so wonderful. I was always wishing that there was a place I could go to, a business where I could express myself creatively with my fellow weirdos, and I thought absolutely this is a great idea.
Madeleine: It was inspired by an opportunity I had to meet 200 autistic teens at an event, and I asked them, ‘what do you want?’ and every single one of them said a place to hang out. I was taken aback by that, something struck a chord with me, that these people are longing for something that seems pretty ordinary but is in fact, everything to them, which is a place to hang out.
Bec: It can be quite difficult to have a sense of belonging when you’re autistic, especially in those formative years, particularly if you don’t find out until a little bit later as well. Then being able to be around like-minded people makes all the difference for people’s well-being, creating a sense of joy and community, it’s so important for everybody. I am so happy you did it. So, why did you start the social hubs for autistic youth?
Madeleine: Well, I call myself the “Tinder” of the autistic community because I get to spend all day talking to amazing autistic people, or their families, or providers who are doing amazing autism friendly activities all over Australia and we are promoting them a lot and sharing with people all the things you can participate in and then introducing people to each other. Even with all of that, all I could see was, how many families contact us saying ‘my teenager, my child, my young adult wants to have a social life and we don’t know what to do.’ So, knowing the demand was out there, we started these social hubs and the tag line for The A List is ‘Be social your way’ and that’s the heart of it. We want to be a space where, if you want to sit on a beanbag and not talk to anyone that’s just as cool as if you want to talk nonstop like a bullet train and participate in everything.
Bec: How have the teenagers responded to being there?
Madeleine: Look it’s so moving; we’ve finished a whole term and there is a variety of people like you would expect participating in the group. We’ve had the opportunity to have a student from Australian Catholic University there volunteering and he is in his first year of Education and then my own children joining in with the group. After the last session of term, my son who is 11 was driving home with me and he said ‘Mum everybody has to know about this. This is amazing. These kids are just not the same. They started and it was like anywhere where you have to get to know each other and it’s uncomfortable, but within the first week they were so happy Mum. And now Mum, they are so free to be, they’re so themselves and they’re just not the same, I’ve never seen them this happy and everybody has to know about it.’
Bec: That’s really amazing and I think there’s a need as well, in the sense that there are a lot of one-off activities being run around the city. I know that through my work, but just turning up one time, whilst it is definitely fun, doesn’t necessarily foster that ongoing sense of connection, community and friendship.
Madeleine: That’s partly what we’ve seen. You know in the first week there was this young girl who was about 12 and when she turned up to the social hub, she had her mobile phone clutched in her hand and wouldn’t let it go, not that I was trying to get rid of it, but she was holding it all the time, like it was really in the focus. Next door in the social hub the parents are totally separate, and they were off having cups of tea and chatting which is great for them too actually. They were in the other room, so I went into her Mum and said, ‘oh she is holding onto her phone, is that ok?’ and she said ‘yeah she is hanging onto it in case she hates it there and needs to text me and wants to leave.’ I laughed and said ‘brilliant, well we will soon find out if she hates it or not won’t we.’
Bec: It’s good to have a safety net and you are offering that as an option.
Madeleine: It is! Totally! It was fine. So, she had her phone and I didn’t’ think anything of it and we carried on and about twenty minutes later, she comes up, bowls over to me, puts the phone in my hand and says ‘I don’t want this anymore, can you give it to Mum.’
Bec: Oh, how sweet.
Madeleine: It was just the best and then turned up the next week with their sister and said, ‘can my sister come too, I love it here,’ and has never missed a session. There’s also another boy and he’s gorgeous, you know I just fall in love with them. He comes along and he was just slightly outside of it, you know? You could tell he was trying to find his way to engage with the group. I was doing something, and he came over to help me and I realised, this guy loves helping or loves some way of being responsible. I said ‘brilliant this is exactly what I need. Someone to be my 2IC.’ He wanted to know what a 2IC is. ‘it’s a Second in Charge. You can do that if you want.’ Now he comes every week, and he has fully taken it upon himself, he loves it. He does all the set-up, the chairs, the games, stuff like that and on the last session he said to his Mum; ‘We’re taking a break during the school holidays, and I can have a break from my job as 2IC.’
Bec: Ha that’s great.
Madeleine: This other boy came, and he walks all the time, he wants to walk, he wants to be on the move. We let him go, he walks around. We had some party food there and he was looking at the food and I asked him if he wanted some. He said ‘I’m scared of germs’, so I offered him an unopened packet. I said, ‘Now you have a choice, you can eat the whole tray of cupcakes yourself, I really don’t mind, or you can be a party host.’ He said, ‘what’s a party host?’ I said, ‘a party host walks around and says, can I offer you a cupcake?’ Next minute he is walking around offering everyone cupcakes. This guy has gone from walking around the whole time and not talking to anyone, to he walks in, waves to everyone, sits down in a circle and chats. His shoulders have dropped, he’s relaxed, he’s laughing, he’s squealing with delight, and I think you’re right. It’s that ongoing connection.
Bec: Something else is jumping out at me too which I think is really powerful. The fact that you are autistic yourself Madeleine, and you were able to use your intuition or your autistic spidey senses to tap into what each teenager required from the situation; probably using your own understanding and intuition. I think it’s really fantastic that this thing is led by an autistic adult.
Madeleine: Thank you. That is part of the intention, as you know I was only diagnosed recently, but now it’s like my whole life makes sense and I look at everything through what was always there as a lens, but I didn’t know was a lens. I know what it’s like for sure, to experience being different and isolated and containing myself, altering myself, changing myself to try and be whatever I thought people were wanting and expecting. I also understand what a deep sense of loneliness and isolation can be sometimes, then trying to articulate it, trying to put the experience in words, getting that across. All that self-advocacy which I think, I don’t know about you, but I feel like I am only recently beginning to learn.
Bec: Yeah, it’s a journey.
Madeleine: The intention is to have an autistic adult at all the social hubs.
Bec: So, what do the parents have to say?
Madeleine: I think that’s the really moving thing because as you know I have lived experience myself as an adult but also the parent of an autistic person. Look any parent desperately wants the best for their kid really, no matter how funky it comes out or the funky ways they express it. The parents are just gobsmacked. They say things like ‘My kids never want to go to anything and they wouldn’t miss this for the world. They get up on a Thursday and go ‘yay it’s social hub day.’ I’ve never seen him this relaxed, he so much more talkative at home. We are finding out things about him that we didn’t know. She is so relaxed with her friends; she’s made a new friend.’ They are just really raving about it. I think that is the overall thing, for me, the teens, the parents, it’s like we’ve all suddenly been able to breathe out and be.
Bec: Fantastic. What have you learnt from running the social hubs?
Madeleine: That they are necessary. You know there is a famous ex Olympian who is also a medical professional, and they were at an event where they had an epiphany about themselves, publicly they had a moment where they were very emotional and saw that they are likely autistic. They were then talking about being a teenager at school and how isolated they were, and they kept saying, ‘but I don’t know what to do about that.’ Afterwards I spoke to them and said ‘I know what to do about it. It’s these socials hubs for autistic youth.’ I think if every person has a place where they can be, a place where they find their people, a place where not only they can express themselves, but what I am finding, contribute to others, that alters everything for someone’s life. Honestly the other thing I have learnt is that not everyone is able to be with the community the way that we are. We are getting requests every day from all over Australia saying, ‘please bring a social hub here.’ So now we are working on how we scale that everywhere so that all the social hubs are the same.
Bec: That’s exciting. So maybe expansion is on the cards?
Madeleine: Totally even today we are opening a new social hub. We will have three running a week and more, more to come.
Bec: Congratulations. I can’t wait for it to spread far and wide, I think it’s a really awesome thing.
Madeleine: Me too and I appreciate you for always being a champion of us because I think that matters, autistic community coming together. I think that’s one of the things, in the very first session I introduced myself as autistic/ADHD and I said, ‘my life is fabulous, and I want you to know this all works out’ and that makes something possible for them.
Bec: Having that sense of hope and modelling is so important. In my personal life, through work, since I met other autistic people, and I work in a place that included me and not just included me, but celebrated me, my life has just blossomed and flourished. So, I think to be able to demonstrate to younger people that that is possible in the right conditions and with the right people, that’s a really beautiful and exciting thing to help the next generation.
Madeleine: Agreed. So, if anybody is listening to the podcast and wants to participate in our social hubs for autistic youth we would love to hear from you. We are really committed that this is going to make an extraordinary difference to our community across Australia. They could email us at email@example.com
Bec: Thanks for having me, you really are a magical person, and I can’t wait to see what is next for The A List Social Hubs.