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Virtual support group provides crucial resources for families of kids with ASD

06/26/20 11:28:am

Women leaders CR Lunch.jpgFor patients struggling with their mental health, support groups are often a source of encouragement and education. When COVID-19 led to stay-at-home orders, support groups, including those run by staff at Rogers clinics throughout the country, were asked to quickly transition to a virtual format. However, one group was uniquely prepared for the sudden shift.

Unmet community needs

After identifying a gap in services in the Skokie community, Blair Famarin, outreach lead, and Julia McAndrews, family therapist, began discussing ways to support parents of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and co-occurring mood or anxiety disorders. They settled on a virtual support group with the hopes of it being more convenient for busy parents.

"From the beginning, we thought it was important to make it as convenient as possible for parents to attend, so the virtual format was the perfect fit,” Blair says. “This way parents don’t have to struggle to find and pay for a babysitter. In fact, it allows both parents to attend if they would like, so long as their child is occupied nearby.”

While parents of kids in our ASD program often remark that the sense of community and support they feel while their child receives treatment helps restore their sense of hope, these resources are not always readily available after treatment.

“When families discharge, they are often left wondering where to turn for community and support,” Julia explains. “By starting a virtual support group, we were able to provide a space for parents throughout the community to feel connected and grow.”

While the virtual format was originally chosen to provide a more convenient arrangement for parents, it would prove especially valuable as an increasing number of existing services were shut down due to the pandemic.

COVID-19 presents new challenges

Before the group had even held its first meeting in April, the COVID-19 pandemic began, leading to a devastating loss of support and resources for parents of children with ASD.

“ASD services have unfortunately been suspended in many cases, which left children struggling to rebuild their routine and parents feeling as though they needed to be teachers, therapists, social coaches, and more in addition to their other responsibilities,” Julia says. “With this group we have collaboratively made the struggle and unique challenges families are facing ‘speakable’ by supporting one another with compassion, understanding, and collective problem solving in the absence of other services.”

The group has proven invaluable, with educational segments covering a range of topics that includes parent burnout and stress, fostering independence in children, and sibling relationships. Of the 17 families that have attended so far, many have children who completed treatment at Rogers and a number of families have attended multiple sessions.

One notable topic that has not been a primary focus? COVID-19.

"We have not focused on COVID-19 specifically. Instead we chose to build up their parenting skills and confidence,” Blair explains. “These skills transfer nicely as they work with their kids at home during the pandemic. Time is also provided during each gathering for parents to share their personal experiences and ask questions about any concerns.”

New families always welcome

Looking to the future, Blair and Julia say that the group will continue to operate virtually, making it possible for families throughout the country to join. The group meets on the third Tuesday of every month from 7 to 8:30 pm CT. If you know a family that would be interested in joining, they can email MA-ASDparents@rogersbh.org to RSVP or learn more.

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