Tom Rademacher: Haven for young people with Asperger's reminds us quirks are good
We all need a haven.
Some of us seek it in books. Others try exercise, bird-watching, Sudoku, ceramics.
And then there’s “Puzzle Partners.”
I’m not referring to jigsaws, but rather a program where teens and young adults with mild social impairments can gather and not be judged too keenly for the simple fact they have Asperger’s Syndrome or high-functioning autism.
Part of me deplores the fact they need a special place to meet at all.
But then I remind myself that while we may all be equal in God’s eyes, we humans have a long way to go before we embrace people who have special needs with the same sort of hugs we give to those who are ostensibly normal.
Says Puzzle Partners member Mike Allen, a graduate of Kenowa Hills High School who enjoys computers, electricity and YouTube: “This is pretty cool. To be with people who have some quirks like I do.”
Mike is one of more than a dozen young adults from Kent and surrounding counties who show up regularly at “The Vault,” a youth center where the group convenes that’s owned by LaGrave Avenue Christian Reformed Church, and located on Sheldon Blvd. SE.
Puzzle Partners is a service of Hope Network that exists to provide opportunities for social growth and expression to those in need.
“I’m one of those people who likes making friends,” says Doug Halbeison, 25, who enjoys theater, works two jobs and is making his way through college.
Hannah Jo VanKoevering, 22, expresses it this way: “Friendship and acceptance … and the ability to let loose.”
And that they do, through animated conversation, and by taking part in everything The Vault has to offer – a kitchen, sitting areas, and entertainment that includes television, billiards, Foosball, air hockey and more.
Something amazing occurs when you step into the room and spend time with members of Puzzle Partners. You quickly begin to notice not what makes them different, but beautifully human.
Hannah has her own line of jewelry, entitled “Hannahtudes.” Tyler Riley works in retail, loves concerts, tattoos and piercings.
Ethan Robert Patterson volunteers at Guiding Light Mission, Habitat for Humanity and Noorthoek Academy, a school within Grand Rapids Community College designed for students with special needs.
Rebecca Flanagan, 21, is working on her GED, loves animals (especially horses), and calls herself “an aspiring writer.”
Sarah Frisch, 24, is a graduate of Calvin College, and not at all embarrassed to share that “The first time I knew I was different was during preschool, because all the other girls were playing with dolls, and I liked driving cars through pudding.”
If you see a little bit of yourself – or of others you know – in the above, then good. Your hug factor is growing.
“Puzzle Partners allows kids to take skills and go from being by themselves to being with others, and encouraging others,” says Mohan Krishnan, M.D., director of children’s services for Hope Network.
“Then, hopefully, that transfers to making friends and partnerships outside of Puzzle Partners, and that can lead to jobs, relationships, more opportunities.”
One of the biggest hurdles for those with Asperger’s is landing meaningful work. The problem often lies in a young adult’s inability to score well during job interviews. They may have the cognitive and physical abilities to perform, but fall short in social expression.
Puzzle Partners is designed to overcome that hurdle, one evening at a time, and usually under the watchful eye and generous heart of group facilitator Ann Mary Dykstra, a teacher “for a bajillion years” who “always had a heart for the kids who didn’t fit in well.”
Dykstra encourages each kid to use their voice, express their desires, showcase their gifts.
“People hear the word ‘autism’ and just assume certain behaviors,” she says.
“I was asked once, ‘Could you tell me what a teenage girl with autism is like?’”
Dykstra laughs. “Could you tell me what any teenage girl is like?”
For Dykstra, “I just enjoy each of these young adults personally, and when I’m with them, what I feel is that we don’t need to have them change to conform to society. I wish society could understand their gifts and challenges.
“Our goal is to help each person realize they’re so special beyond autism or Asperger’s.”
Dykstra’s dream is for Puzzle Partners to one day have a place of its own, so they’re not limited to two Thursday evenings a month. But that would take resources for which she and others are still searching.
In the meantime, they meet and celebrate their exquisite who-ness.
“We’re not lesser,” says Hannah Jo, “just different.
“You know. Like bird-watchers.”
Editor’s Note: For more information about Puzzle Partners, firstname.lastname@example.org
E-mail Tom Rademacher at: email@example.com