MENTOR Program Feature: Autism Mentorship Program (AMP)
- Emily Goldberg, Autism Mom/Founder of AMP
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.
Original design for AMP logo by Johnny Jimenez Lezama, 10th grader in the center-based autism program at Kennedy High School, Bloomington MN.
AMP’s vision is three-fold:
- To offer autistic teens a sense of identity and belonging, and the opportunity to foster connections with caring autistic adults who can help them recognize that they are not “less than” their neurotypical peers, nor are they alone; others have overcome similar challenges and achieved success and they can, too.
- To invite autistic adults to serve as role models and leaders in their community, where they will be highly valued specifically for the insights their autism brings, and play an active role in improving life for the next generation of autistic youth.
- To support the parents/guardians of autistic teens, who may have difficulty picturing positive futures for their children, by connecting them with autistic adults who can offer hope and guidance.
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:
- Autistic adults — Perhaps you’ve heard this phrase from self-advocates: “Nothing about us without us.” Autistic adults are the experts on living with autism. Only they can provide the kind of insight and understanding autistic youth need. Historically, they haven’t always been at the table when it comes to designing programs and policies for their own community, but they are central to the creation of AMP.
- Parents of autistic children — We want to help our kids connect with adults like them. We want to know and learn from autistic adults ourselves. We want people with autism to be valued in our communities. And we are fierce!
- The Autism Society of Minnesota (AuSM) — The oldest autism-focused nonprofit organization in Minnesota, the AuSM staff brings more than four decades of experience serving families and individuals affected by autism.
- Minnesota Independence College and Community (MICC) — For the pilot, mentors have been recruited from MICC, an intensive life skills educational opportunity for individuals with autism and other learning differences . MICC staff helped train mentors and will be a source of mentor support.
- Bloomington Public Schools’ Special Education Department — The pilot mentees have been recruited from Bloomington’s Kennedy High School, where staff will be on hand to help support the students and gather program feedback.
- MENTOR Minnesota — MENTOR Minnesota’s technical assistance has been invaluable in helping us design this start-up program.
- University of Minnesota’s Department of Family Social Science and Division of Clinical Behavioral Neuroscience— Academic and clinical experts in autism and program evaluation processes will be collecting data to measure AMP’s effectiveness during our first year.
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.