Junior Kassie Rivera has a first-hand understanding of the challenges of living with someone with an Autism Spectrum Disorder and the stress it places on the entire family.
Interested in providing an outlet for herself and other teenage siblings of people with ASD, she organized a peer support group in her New York City neighborhood last summer with help from Loomis Chaffee’s Norton Fellowship program. She hopes to expand on the pilot program’s success by fostering similar support groups in other locations or perhaps through video conferencing.
Kassie, whose pre-teen brother Nicholas has autism, was granted a Norton Fellowship to support her project last year. The fellowship program, offered through the Norton Family Center for the Common Good, funds and guides student-proposed summer community engagement projects in the students’ hometowns.
Kasie’s first step in her summer endeavor was to reach out to Pat Schissel, New York director of the Asperger/Autism Network for guidance in making peer connections and creating programming that might interest teenagers. According to Kassie, Ms. Schissel helped her secure a meeting space in Manhattan and allowed her to place an advertisement for the support group in the network’s newsletter.
The second step — making connections to young people interested in joining the support group — posed a bigger challenge than Kassie had expected. She printed flyers and posted them throughout the neighborhood and advertised the meetings on social media, but she thinks it was Ms. Schlissel’s personal connections that were most effective in getting people to the meetings.
Kassie called the group SSS, for Support for Siblings of kids on the Spectrum, and the participants met every Tuesday for the month of July 2019. While there were never more than a handful of people in attendance, Kassie noted, the experience was positive for everyone involved.
“I came prepared with some questions to frame the conversation, but in the end, the conversation just flowed easily around our shared experiences,” she said, adding that it was comforting to know other group members faced some of the same challenges as she did coping with the immediate needs of their siblings and the common disruptions to schoolwork and social life.
Another positive takeaway from the experience, according to Kassie, was the connection she made with Ms. Schissel and the chance to see the work Ms. Schissel does as the director of a community support organization. Kassie also acknowledged that she was challenged to improve her communication skills in promoting the support group.
The Norton Fellowship program encourages fellows to bring their summer experiences back to the Loomis community by creating similar or related projects when they return to school in the fall. Kassie she doesn’t believe there is significant interest in an Autism Spectrum Disorder sibling affinity group on the Loomis campus, but after this spring’s distance learning experience during the COVID-19 pandemic, she is considering expanding the SSS outreach to a wider community by hosting support groups via Zoom online conferences.
‘It was really helpful for me, and helpful for the people who came to the support group,” Kassie said.
Kassie is an active member of affinity groups and student organizations at Loomis. She serves as a president of Spectrum, the student-led LGTBQ+ organization, and is a member of PRISM (People Rising in Support of Multiculturalism.) She has taken part in the school’s Emerging Writers program for two summers and writes poetry for The Loom, a student literary magazine.
For more about the Norton Fellowship program and other center initiatives, connect to the school webpage for the Norton Family Center for the Common Good.