By Jan Randall
“A mentor is an individual, usually older, always more experienced, who helps and guides another individual’s development.” F. John Reh
A few years ago I was part of a group of 10 parents who were chatting during a break at an Autism event. We all had boys who ranged in age from 12 to their 20s, and all are on the more challenged end of the Autism Spectrum. As we talked our conversation turned to the behavior challenges that we were currently dealing with, or had faced in the past.
Later as I thought back to our discussion, I was struck by the fact that all of our children who were going into the community with a mentor or support person on a regular basis, doing things that teens like to do, were doing well. Conversely, the guys who were having more behavior challenges were the ones who were coming home from school and spending the afternoon and evening sitting in front of the TV, computer, or doing some other kind monotonous activity.
My realization, that kids getting out, being active and having fun with someone who cares about them didn’t really surprise me. I’ve been talking about the importance of mentors for our kids for years. My 28 year old son Andrew has steadily had a mentor in his life since the age of 11. But Andrew’s first mentor came into his life when he was only 8 years old.
We had just moved Andrew from a private Autism school to public school. Although he spent most of his day in a self-contained classroom, part of his day was spent in a typical first grade class. Shortly after the start of the school year I got a phone call from a young man named Sean. He told me his little sister was in Andrew’s first grade class. He then explained that he was a high school senior and in order to graduate he was required to do Community Service. He asked if I be interested in having him do his Community Service with Andrew.
At first I was a taken aback by the thought of my son being a community service project. My other concern was Andrew only had about 30 words and it wasn’t unusual for him to get confused or frustrated and have a meltdown. The prospect of having Andrew out with a 17 year old who had zero experience with Autism was scary, to say the least. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought that this was a terrific opportunity not only for Andrew but for me as well. Andrew could have fun with a “big brother” and I could get a much needed break for 90 minutes a week.
We started by having Sean come to our home to meet Andrew and spend time talking to me, so he could understand Andrew better. Then, over the next few weeks, Sean and Andrew played basketball in our driveway so I could support Sean as they got to know one another. After about a month it was time for them to go family swim at the Y, Andrew’s favorite activity. The first week I drove Andrew to the Y where we met Sean. I stayed to watch them in the pool and when swim was done I left and let Sean take care of Andrew and drive him the 2 miles to our home. Their relationship continued for the rest of the school year and ended when Sean graduated in early June.
Andrew’s next mentor came when he was 11. This time it was Kevin, a college student who was in his early 20s. Initially Kevin started by coming to our home to do activities with Andrew. It was the winter, so they would bake cookies or brownies. As they got to know one another they would go sledding, and out to other places in the community.. I’ll never forget the afternoon Kevin brought Andrew home and I asked him where they had gone. Kevin responded “a café”. I was shocked, a café? Seriously? I would never have imagined bringing Andrew to a café, but to Kevin it was no big deal. After walking around Providence they stopped at a quaint little café, Kevin sipping coffee and Andrew having hot chocolate and cookies. Andrew had a blast and I learned a valuable lesson about not putting limits on what Andrew might enjoy doing.
Over the years Andrew has had over 25 mentors. The majority have been college students, and I am pleased to say that they have gone on to some wonderful careers, including: surgeon, nurse, college professor, speech & language pathologist, social worker, art therapist, and teacher to name a few. I know that their experiences with Andrew and our family have taught them so much, and that what they have learned they have been able to carry into their lives.
What they have given Andrew cannot be described in a few short sentences, so I’ll close with a quote from Tara, former teacher, mentor, and forever friend: “It is a well-deserved and WELL-EARNED title to be considered one of Andrew’s friends. I earned this title by sticking in there through thick and thin, by letting him lead me to what works with him, and by endless patience and acceptance. Once I ACCEPTED him for who he was, I not only learned how to get along with him, I learned how to love him- that made all the difference in teaching him.”