Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Through the Looking Glass presents Heather McCracken

If you read yesterday's post, you know that over the long weekend I "met" some wonderful folks via Twitter hashtag #youmightbeanautismparentif.  One of those folks is Heather McCracken, founder and executive director of Friend 2 Friend Social Learning Society.  This is her story ~  

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Necessity is the Mother of a Child On the Autism Spectrum
I will never forget the moment my son was diagnosed…I started to cry, but not because I was upset that the doctor had agreed with my suspicions. I cried out of relief that someone finally saw what I saw, that someone finally believed me. Up to that point I had been on my own. After eighteen long and torturous months and an incredible twelve different physicians finally, on a rainy day in December, one doctor had the courage to agree with a mother's intuition.

What I did not know was that the events of December 4, 1995 would alter the course of my life. My path from that moment forward was a journey with one goal – to ensure that son Iain would know that he was accepted, understood and loved for who he was within his family, his community and his peer group.

My son, like so many others I know on the autism spectrum, wants the one thing that most individuals his age want - to have friends. All individuals regardless of their unique challenges or gifts have the intrinsic need to play, make friends and be accepted for who they are. Individuals with autism are no different; they just express this need differently.

Fast-forward three years to when Iain started kindergarten. Watching him suffer from this social isolation in the school environment, I felt compelled to do what I could to change this situation, not only for my son, but also for other children who experience these same social difficulties. In 2002, after several years of research I designed the Friend 2 Friend Autism Demystification model and programs and founded Friend 2 Friend Social Learning Society, a non-profit charity based in Vancouver, British Columbia Canada.

The Friend 2 Friend Model works to promote understanding, acceptance, and empathy in an effort to foster mutually rewarding friendships between children with autism spectrum and related social communication disorders and their peers, siblings and classmates. This is done by designing and providing programs using age-appropriate tools such as puppets in the Friend 2 Friend Puppet Program for children ages 3-12, and a sensory Simon Says game as part of the Friend 2 Friend Simulation Game Program for children ages 12 and up. 

Our autism demystification programs work to build a general knowledge of autism by modeling characteristics of autism, labeling those characteristic with their proper names, explaining the purpose of those characteristics and finally -- but most importantly -- normalizing the characteristics, comparing them to conventional characteristics that many people have. The Friend 2 Friend model and programs also teach prosocial communication strategies to all of the children (both on and off the autism spectrum). These strategies work to promote social communication competencies in all children and provide a framework for children to feel confident in social interaction with one another. This well-researched, structured teaching model makes up the Friend 2 Friend model and is the basis for all of the programs we design.

In 2002, Friend 2 Friend began field-testing the model and delivering our first program -- the Friend 2 Friend Puppet Program. That year we (two volunteers and I) provided 35 presentations, seeing approximately 1700 children in schools, preschools and daycares in North Vancouver.  The following school year (2003-2004) we provided 287 Puppet Program presentations seeing over 14,000 children in schools throughout the lower mainland of BC. The demand for the Friend 2 Friend programs increases yearly and now in our 9th year of operation and fast approaching our 10th anniversary, Friend 2 Friend Social Learning Society provides a host of programs including our signature Autism Demystification programs, our Friend 2 Friend – Integrated Play Groups program, training seminars and conferences such as our satellite training programs, Can I Play Too? Community Capacity Building Project, and our publications program.

  In 2012 we are working hard to establish the Friend 2 Friend Play Centre, a state-of-the art peer play centre combining a research-based awarding-winning SCERTS®, IPG® and F2F models. 

Since our humble beginnings a decade ago, Friend 2 Friend has delivered our Autism Demystification programs to over 130,000 children and 30,000 adults. We have established two satellite partners in Calgary, AB and Burlington, VT, published three self-use autism demystification packaged programs that are subtitled in the 6 UN languages and sold worldwide, and we have delivered over 75 Integrated Play Groups Programs and 200 seminars.

I have to admit that when I founded Friend 2 Friend Social Learning Society and started designing and implementing the Friend 2 Friend Autism Demystification Programs I never imagined for one moment that I would travel the world helping parents and professionals implement the programs. I also never imaged that I would be sitting at a university waiting for my son Iain to finish classes for the day while I wrote this article.

The road we travel in the world of autism is long and winding but it is an amazing ride filled with the joy of acceptance, understanding, empathy and friendships for our children and for ourselves. It is my hope that the Friend 2 Friend programs have and will continue to help make the road a bit smoother for many individuals on the autism spectrum and their peers.

Check us out on:

Twitter @F2FHeather

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Through the Looking Glass Contributor: Heather McCracken is the founder and executive director of the Friend 2 Friend Social Learning Society. She is the creator of the Friend 2 Friend model and programs and a mother of three (Katie, Iain and Emma); her son Iain is on the autism spectrum. Heather actively designs and delivers social, communication peer play based programs for children ages 3 through 18 in schools and other community settings throughout North America and abroad. She an international speaker and widely published, author of "That's What's Different About Me", "Can I Play Too", "Demystifying Autism", and coauthor "Learners on the Autism Spectrum."

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AutismWonderland - written by Lisa Quinones-Fontanez - is a personal blog chronicling a NYC family's journey with autism, while also sharing local resources for children/families with special needs.

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