by Joanna Keating-Velasco, author of "A is for Autism, F is for Friend"
When I set forth to write an article this month, my typing fingers were leading me to write about how volunteering can be a great educational and social tool for kids on autism spectrum. With it being November and the holiday season upcoming, I think now is the perfect time to discuss this topic.
Volunteering As An Opportunity
Helping your child connect to interesting volunteer opportunities builds a bridge for them to enter the social arena. Non-profit organizations thrive on volunteers and are often excited to have people show up to help. This provides a positive environment for them to learn, grow and hopefully succeed. Meanwhile, they are usually learning pre-vocational skills. If they do well and are praised, this builds self-esteem as well as increasing the likelihood that they enjoy the work.
When individuals with autism get out into our communities and volunteer, they also become living examples of raising autism awareness by simply being themselves as contributing members of society.
Taking An Interest Inventory
If your teen or student doesn’t already volunteer, there are many ways to take that first step in finding a great fit for that individual. While finding a “great cause” is sometimes a good way to start, I think the best way to start is to do a little inventory into what sort of passions or interests this potential volunteer has.
Here are some examples of passions or interests and prospective volunteer opportunities:
Animals – Working with local adoption centers by cleaning cages, fostering animals or helping with adoption shows. Playing with or walking dogs at a local vet office.
Painting – Join a Habitat for Humanity or Paint Your Heart Out team and help paint a house.
Keeping things clean or “in their place” – Go to your local park and pick up litter or recyclables (bonus - this could also bring in money).
Enjoy the Outdoors or Nature – Contact your local arboretum or wildlife sanctuary and offer to help water or pick up trash.
Reading and keeping things organized – Get in touch with your local library and find out what types of volunteer opportunities are available.
Arts & Crafts – Assist with your city’s or church’s kids’ craft classes.
School-related – Contact your local elementary or preschool to see what volunteer options your teen might enjoy.
Special education – Your teen might like helping individuals with disabilities either at a school site or in an after-school environment.
Medical field – Hospital volunteers are typically needed on an ongoing basis.
Beach or hiking – Join a group doing a litter walk on a local nature trail or beach.
Preparation For Volunteering
One resourceful idea is to watch YouTube videos on various volunteering opportunities. This will enable your child to visualize some of the opportunities before giving it a try. If you need help thinking of creative volunteer ideas, you can do a quick internet search on “volunteer opportunities” in your county.
Sometimes volunteer options can be broken down into smaller tasks if your child is unable to complete an entire volunteer opportunity. For example, if you are working at putting emergency food bags together, you can have a picture strip of each item needed for each bag – making an assembly line visual (see below).
In addition to having a positive impact on your community, volunteering can also be a great way to enhance social interactions (your child will be working side by side with other workers or volunteers with similar interests) while providing great work experience (pre-vocational skills are practiced) which could lead to potential paying jobs in the future. Not only will they continue to improve their resume with each service opportunity, they will gain potential references and mentors. Including volunteer experience on a job and/or college applications can be just as important as having employment history.
Thanks a bunch! Looking forward to your insight.