When the diagnosis of autism was received the first call I placed was to the Autism Society of America and soon after I contacted a local chapter in Los Angeles. The time period was the summer of 1998, well before I purchased my computer in December of 1999. Luckily the ASA had a fax-back system to send all the reading material to the management of the building we lived in. You could get five related items sent per each phone request, which led to many calls.
The now defunct chapter had printouts of various therapies and resources according to topic. Listed under Respite/Day Care was Family Friends. The description reads – “Family Friends volunteers visit families of children with a chronic illness or disability. They spend a few hours each week in the family home, playing with the children, going for walks, talking with parents, spending time with siblings.”
I made the call on September 1, 1998 with a health intake at my home a few months later. We were placed on a waiting list for about a year before we were matched and received the call with the information relating to our Family Friend. I have chosen Sundays from 11 am – 1 pm as the designated time for our volunteer to come over. In the past four years we have had three Family Friends visit on a weekly basis. The first two years there was Rebecca, then we had Donovan with Erin finishing this past May.
Our Family Friends experience relates to the Los Angeles area. Their website states, “ Special kids need special friends” While the site shows volunteers are over the age of 55, the California project is a bit different. It is known as CORE – Family Friends Children’s Outreach Relief Effort. Until two years ago this was sponsored through the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. From 1997 through 2003 the CORE program touched the lives of eighty medical students. These future doctors learned about the challenges and joys of raising children with chronic illnesses and disabilities. They gained an understanding of families’ lives outside the doctor’s office, which will help them to be more sensitive to the needs of their future patients’ and families. This information was taken from a letter to Parents from the Director of Family Friends Project in announcing the lack of funding to continue the program associated with UCLA.
In October of 2003 I received a letter addressed to Parents informing us that the CORE program was now being co-sponsored by Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles and the USC Keck School of Medicine, also referred to as “Big Sib/Little Sib”.
The program is open to medical students in their first and second years. Both students and parents receive a set of guidelines to help facilitate the relationship. Some of these include respecting the relationship between the volunteer and children in allowing it to develop over time; do not ask volunteers to baby-sit or buy gifts for the child. It is also advised not to discuss your child with the volunteer in front of the children. There is no charge for service, nor are there any income requirements. Volunteers are screened through an in-depth interview, references, and a fingerprint check. A 12-hour intensive training is provided that includes: child development, communication skills, health education and cultural competency.
As of October, 2004 there were 90 volunteer and family matches in the Los Angeles and San Fernando Valley areas. Volunteer guidelines include getting the parent to sign a Rider to Waiver of Liability form, medical consent form and Emergency Contact Numbers. These need to be filled out prior to the Volunteer taking the child outside of the home. It is recommended to wait three months before any such outings are implemented.
The first call is from Family Friends with the name of the new Core Student. Within a week the volunteer will make contact with the family and discuss the weekly visits and set up the first meeting. Since I have two children on the Autism Spectrum the Core student has been specifically geared toward my high functioning child who is now ten years of age. My non-verbal son also spends time with volunteers, but not on the same level.
Over the years the volunteer has made puzzles, played board games, assisted with homework, played outside and accompanied us on outings to the Zoo, fairs and stores. A few times a volunteer has taken my son to get a haircut and visit Mc Donald’s for some solo time. I spend the time with my younger son and on the computer so the Core student and my son can attend to games and discuss school and other activities.
Some of the volunteers have given the kid’s holiday and birthday presents and we have done the same. Back in 2003 we went through a Custody Evaluation with the court system since the children’s father no longer wanted supervised visitation. I requested letters from those who worked with my family to present to the Court Evaluator to share insights into autism and my children. Our first volunteer, Rebecca wrote a letter for me relating her experience with interacting with my children and what type of experience one would need to spend time with them.
In closing I want to recommend the Family Friends program for other families that have a child or children on the Autism Spectrum. This is for those who are married or single, no matter what your family situation is. I am not sure how the program works in other cities, but this link lists the projects by State and is a worthwhile resource for all families.
A similar resource for families is Best Buddies. This program begins at the Middle School age range, something I plan to sign my son up for at that time. Best Buddies also looks for adult volunteers to be matched with adults who have disabilities. They do a thorough background check and get references. I tried but those I asked to sign a reference form for me thought I already have a full plate raising two autistic kids on my own. I will try again in a few years.
Feel free to contact me with any specific questions you may have about the Family Friends project.
Toys to consider this Christmas season for children on the Autism Spectrum.
Promoting Autism Awareness
Halloween for children with autism