29 Jun 2016 Special play group is about more than just fun for children with autism
by Anjali Van Drie, MA, MSW, BCBA, Vice President
Family Initiative, Inc.
Every Saturday, a few minutes after 1pm, Dylan comes running in to the gym smiling and giving hugs. After making his rounds, greeting everyone in attendance, he searches for a basketball and laughs as he shoots it at the basket. Although he doesn’t usually make it, he picks it up and tries again, giggling the entire time.
Dylan is one of many children in Southwest Florida diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Diagnosis (ASD). One of the hallmark traits of individuals with an ASD diagnosis is developmental delay connected to social skills. Children often struggle with developing friendships, or even knowing how to play with others. Dylan’s parents, Mike and Lilian, bring him to the Family Initiative’s playgroup almost every Saturday. The playgroup was created by David Brown and me less than a year ago. We are both social workers in Lee County and graduates of Florida Gulf Coast University. Together we recognized the need for families with children with ASD.
There are such limited resources for these families, we wanted to create a place where parents could bring their kids to have fun in a safe and accepting environment. The Family Initiative enlists a team of professional social workers and board- certified behavioral staff to oversee the playgroup each week. For the kids, it’s playtime. But they’re also learning critical skills that will help them thrive, like how to make and keep friends
Just about every Saturday, Mike and Lilian give Dylan the choice- continue swimming in the pool at home or getting dressed go to “the gym”? His answer is the gym, every time. They gather up Dylan and his younger sisters, and make the one-hour trek from Cape Coral to Fort Myers so Dylan can play with his friends.
Before they starting making that weekly trek, Dylan didn’t really play because he didn’t know how. His parents had tried to teach him, rolling cars back and forth, or attempting to play games. They were met with disinterest or tears. And Dylan never wanted to play sports. Through regular participation, today, he loves them—especially basketball. Dylan has come to love playing a variety of games, including basketball. He now freely engages with the other children in attendance and always participates in the programs activities. One night, as Lilian was getting Dylan’s younger sisters ready for bed, she noticed Dylan with a Nerf ball in their home. He took the ball over to the wall and began throwing it up…as if he was shooting his basketball. Lilian took a quick video and shared it with David and me, saying, “I think he’s using what he learned at group!”
Dylan is just one example of the many success stories we cheer with parents each Saturday. Watching the children grow socially and to begin developing meaningful friendships is simply amazing. Without the support of the Southwest Florida Community Foundation, these types of innovative and critical programs would not be available for families here.
This summer, the Southwest Florida Community Foundation is spotlighting the nonprofit organizations funded through the 2016 competitive grant cycle. We have asked our 2016 grantees to send us their stories. The Foundation is pleased to partner with these change-makers.
About the Southwest Florida Community Foundation
As leaders, conveners, grant makers and concierges of philanthropy, the Southwest Florida Community Foundation is a foundation built on community leadership with an inspired history of fostering regional change for the common good in Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Hendry and Glades counties. The Community Foundation, founded in 1976, connects donors and their philanthropic aspirations with evolving community needs. With assets of more than $93 million, the Community Foundation has provided more than $63 million in grants and scholarships to the communities it serves. Last year, it granted more than $3.2 million to nonprofit organizations supporting education, animal welfare, arts, healthcare and human services, as well as provided regional community impact grants and scholarship grants.