In many ways, Sarah Simpson is a typical 10-year-old. She loves reading, socializing, spending hours in the swimming pool, riding and grooming her horse, and being tickled. She fearlessly boards the scariest rides at amusement parks, leaving others white-knuckled and clinging to solid ground.
However, Sarah also has autism spectrum disorder, a developmental condition associated with mild to severe behavioral, communication, and social problems that can make a simple blood draw in the doctor’s office an event requiring full-body restraints. Sarah’s frequent tantrums and episodes of emotional distress often prevent her family from seeing a movie or eating in a restaurant without having to leave. Occasionally, her parents must abandon their plans entirely.
“Sarah is extremely social, and she’s extremely hyperactive,” says her mother, Aurora Bearse, a Washington State Court of Appeals commissioner. “She’s very much like having a 3-year-old in a 10-year-old’s body. She can’t concentrate on things. She can’t go to a movie or sit down and play games.”
Sarah was diagnosed with the disorder at 3 1/2. Over the nearly seven years since then, it became clear that the family, which includes a younger sister, Lilah, 8, needed the support of a community that understood the challenges they faced. “I can’t sign Sarah up for most after-school programs or for most camps,” Bearse says. “I don’t even have the opportunity to go out to lunch with my husband.”
Dr. Ilene Schwartz, a professor in the University of Washington’s College of Education and an authority on developmental conditions and special education, understands the disappointment and fear of the unknown many parents of special-needs children experience.
“You have this great new child that you love, but it’s not the child you thought it was going to be,” Schwartz says. “For people who are used to being able to fix a problem, this isn’t necessarily a problem you can fix.”
One year ago, Sarah’s parents reached out to the Friendship Circle of Washington, the local chapter of an international organization run by the Chabad Lubavitch organization. At its core, the Friendship Circle offers something that money just can’t buy and that Sarah’s family desperately needed: simple friendships in a social setting.
The organization recruits and screens local Jewish teen volunteers who befriend the kids, and who will even visit with them at home, if needed, through its Friends@Home program. Sarah attends a group called Sunday Circle with the Friendship Circle’s disability specialists in music, movement, and kung fu, while her mother gets the adult time she craves in the Mom’s Night Out program.
“We offer 100 percent acceptance, 100 percent inclusion, 100 percent no judgment, and 100 percent friendship and love,” says program director Esther Bogomilsky, who runs the organization with her husband. “We play with the kiddos the way we would play with anybody.”
The Friendship Circle accepts children and young adults with most any condition, be it autism, Down syndrome, developmental delays, cognitive impairment, motor disabilities, ADHD, learning disabilities, mental health impairments, or physical disabilities. “We don’t focus on all of the labels,” says Bogomilsky. “We deal with anybody who struggles with friendship and who could use a friend.”
The Friendship Circle provides its programs for free and welcomes donations. It also raises significant funds through its annual Walk With Friendship, which takes place this year on October 11 at Luther Burbank Park on Mercer Island.
“We’re really listening to what the community needs and what the void in the community is,” says executive director Rabbi Elazar Bogomilsky. “We are, thank God, a circle that keeps on expanding and keeps on growing.”
The group now has a waiting list for families who want to join and one for teens who want to be volunteers. According to the rabbi, the volunteers come away deeply affected by the relationships formed with the children. “These teens are beyond dedicated,” he says. “You have a typical teen that’s learning to give of themselves, where they realize that they make such a critical difference in the life of another human being.”
“It’s really a selfless and appreciated group,” Bearse says. “Sarah doesn’t really have any friends. She doesn’t really know how to do anything beyond, ‘Hi, what’s your name?’ I was looking for a place where she could have more interaction with other people.”
Families with special-needs children have many resources for coping with challenging situations. Here are a few places to start.
Get a Mentor
Arc of King County provides resources to individuals with special-needs family members. The Parent to Parent program matches parents of kids with similar
diagnoses for emotional support.
Carve out Time for Yourself — and Stick To It
Aurora Bearse recommends getting a regular babysitter you trust, and setting up a date night with your partner each week.
Know Your Rights
Read the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Family Medical Leave Act, and the State of Washington superintendent’s parent and student rights. Click here to get started.
Understand Mental Health
The National Alliance on Mental Illness has a Washington office, which can assist with issues relating to depression and mental illness. For early childhood mental health issues, visit Zero to Three.
Get Tech Support
Technology can come to the rescue for kids who need to work on certain skills, like recognizing emotion and developing speech. Check out recommended apps at Friendship Circle.
For more resources on raising special-needs children, a comprehensive list exists at washington.edu/doit.