For Colleen Contreni, Family Liaison at Anderson Center for Autism, the concept of ‘extended family’ has long inspired her work.
“I have always been a very family-oriented person, and this role at Anderson is a reminder that by cultivating a spirit of kinship among parents, caregivers, and siblings of autistic individuals, everyone’s lives are enriched,” said Contreni.
And, as is the case in all families, she says that communication is really the key to navigating challenges, celebrating milestones, and exploring opportunities as an ‘extended family.’ “Although communication tends to be difficult – or even impossible – for the autistic children and adults served by our programs at Anderson Center for Autism, we know that for their caregivers, having a chance to communicate with one another – and with our team – is everything,” she reflected.
To that end, Contreni helps manage a group called Anderson Family Partners (AFP), which was the brainchild of a few parents of Anderson residents and students who felt compelled to build community.
Explained Contreni: “Many moms, dads, relatives, guardians, brothers, and sisters of individuals with autism will say that before making the difficult choice to place loved ones in the full-time setting at Anderson, they had long felt extremely isolated and alone. Thanks to AFP, however, they now have the chance to build the kinds of relationships that make life brighter. It is so rewarding to know that this group can provide the sense of belonging that is so desperately needed, and give families a chance to connect with people who share a similar journey in life – one that is hard to comprehend unless you have walked in their shoes.”
First established in 2013, AFP is a membership-based group whose mission statement is as follows: “Anderson Family Partners (AFP) is a community of families and guardians of individuals served by Anderson Center for Autism (ACA). We are committed to supporting ACA in their mission of optimizing the quality of life for people with autism. We foster communication, education, and support for the Anderson population, their families, as well as the team members. We also partner with Anderson in community outreach, advocacy, and fundraising efforts.”
Said Contreni: “Despite the fact that incidence rates are now 1 in 36 and there are agencies all over the map, I don’t believe there are many groups quite like this that exist – and yet this kind of support is so critically important for so many reasons. Through AFP, families have access to informative sessions on our evidence-based approach to therapy, education, and care, along with educational seminars on topics like guardianship and the transition to adulthood. In addition, they learn what our field needs in terms of policy development – the group has even helped advocate for funding increases for organizations like ours, while doing some fundraising on their own (whether it be for Anderson’s prom, special outings, or specific needs that some of the residences have). The AFP group also works together to brainstorm solutions when challenges arise – whether it be in an individual or organizational context. And, this group really roots for one another – offering compassion when someone most needs it, and celebrating as milestones are achieved or brighter days come along.”
As mentioned, AFP is driven by Anderson Center of Autism’s broader mission of “optimizing the quality of life for individuals with autism” – but AFP is simultaneously optimizing the quality of life for their fellow members and even for Anderson’s team members who work with their loved ones every day.
“This is all about creating open lines of communication and developing the kind of relationships that allow everyone to reach their potential. Families and team members share resources and knowledge, and engage in the kind of meaningful dialogue that helps us carry out our mission every day. Some of the conversations are difficult ones to have – but they are much less difficult when these relationships are strengthened by this type of ongoing engagement. And the lasting, connected friendships that AFP members have built with one another – and with Anderson professionals caring for their loved ones – keep everyone feeling inspired. We reflect daily on the fact that we are really all in this together, and you can see what that looks like when you attend an AFP meeting.”
AFP is open to all families who have loved ones enrolled in Anderson Center for Autism’s programs. Dues are $25 per year (per family), but some will make larger donations to support Anderson’s Foundation. “We meet monthly – and the setup is hybrid so it works for all – families who are from as far away as the West Coast, and those who are local to the Hudson Valley where we are based, and everyone in between. We want it to be convenient and accessible to all who wish to participate. And we’re always coming up with new topics and programs of interest – for example, one of the upcoming subjects will be ‘Autism and Sexuality.’ We also recently launched a sibling group, so we are very excited about the response to that.”
“Siblings, like parents and caregivers, often feel very lonely in their experience; we hope to empower and enlighten them with tools, knowledge, and a sense that they are valued and supported as well in this unique journey of caring for someone with autism. It has been incredibly rewarding to see them get involved, and I know that it has made a very positive impact on their lives.”
Added Contreni, “I have seen so many lives that are enriched by AFP – families who had been so alone who now feel a true sense of community. It really is an extended family here at Anderson Center for Autism – and when families communicate and stay engaged with one another, everyone has a chance to truly thrive.”
Learn more about Anderson Center for Autism and Anderson Family Partners at: www.andersoncenterforautism.org/anderson-family-partners/.
Marybeth Cale is the owner of Cale Communications and Estuary Coaching. She lives in the Hudson Valley region of New York State and serves as Secretary of the Board of Trustees for Anderson Foundation for Autism. Learn more about her services and expertise at calecommunications.com or estuarycoaching.com.