The Community Learning Center (CLC) based out of Laurentian Regional High School (LRHS) in Lachute, Quebec has launched an initiative for Anglophone teenagers and young adults living on the Autism Spectrum in the Laurentians.
The co-founder of the group, a parent of an adolescent with special needs living in the Laurentians for the last 15 years, noted a lack of services beyond the school day for Anglophones presenting with special needs. When her youngest child was ready to attend the local English high school, she reached out to the CLC Agent at LRHS and pitched her idea for this group. With the collaboration of Sir Wilfrid Laurier School Board (SWLSB), 4Korners Family Resource Center and Integrated Health and Social Services Centres (CISSS), the idea came to life and was aptly named “Autism and Arts in the Laurentians” (AAL).
The focal point of the AAL program is art. Within the broad definition of art, falls traditional artwork; however, the group is also working on exciting multimedia projects such as claymation and stop motion. The participants have a chance to explore storyline writing, sculpting as well as using technology to film, edit, record voice-overs and create sound effects. SWLSB is generously providing the facilities and technology currently used by AAL.
The AAL group is comprised of students with an ASD diagnosis as well as student volunteers that lend a helping hand and who have become participants themselves. While art is the primary reason the group meets, a significant secondary benefit is that students with Autism have a chance to socialize in a safe, welcoming and non-judgmental environment and create friendships within the group. These friendships then transfer over to the school day and are a source of support for students on the spectrum. For participants who are not in school (i.e. who have aged out of the education system or who are homeschooled), the program serves as a vehicle for continued community involvement.
These meetings are an opportunity for all participants to share experiences, challenges and discuss relevant issues affecting their lives. The initiative also provides the opportunity for those who recently received an ASD diagnosis to be mentored by members and their families who have been part of the system longer. Through this student-led initiative, the collaborating partners hope to create support networks that will reduce the social isolation felt by many in this demographic.
A strong emphasis is also placed on building social skills, awareness and self-esteem. Recognizing verbal and non-verbal social cues and developing effective ways to communicate are difficult undertakings for those on the spectrum. The CISSS has provided AAL with an autism-specific social skills program and topics to be covered are selected by the group as a whole. While obstacles of having Autism are discussed, members are also challenged to explore the positive aspects of the condition. Because Autism is often seen as something challenging, another goal of the AAL program is to instil a positive self-image in each participant. The program offers a safe, non-threatening and enjoyable environment where everyone has a chance to be an active participant in the discussions and projects.
The group has future plans for activities with the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ education department, which offers workshops for students on the spectrum.