Suzanne Swett, co-facilitator of the Derry Social Connections group, remembers one young man attending the group. “One girl and I sat on either side of him, and we taught him to play ‘Apples To Apples,’” Swett recalled. “He won the first game, and there was no stopping him. Every time we had a game night, he picked the same game.” The first time the man won, she told his father, Swett said, “and I thought his father was going to cry.”
Swett and Nick Saporito run groups in Derry and Concord with the purpose of getting young adults with Asperger’s, autism or other conditions on the “spectrum” out of their shells, their homes and their fears. With their combined strengths (Swett is a mental health professional, Saporito a young man with Asperger’s), they are determined that no young adult be left behind.
Swett is also the mother of a young man with Asperger’s, and she knew the frustration of finding things for him to do in a supportive setting. “There is so much concentration on ‘early intervention,’” she said, and while what happens with children is crucial, she is “passionate” about young adults. “What happens when they’re 10, 12, 21?” she asked.
She started a group, Concord Social Connections, while living in Concord in 2011. She was concerned for the young adults she worked with in the Community Bridges program, who were often teased or not accepted in their younger years. She wanted to give them the skills to advocate for themselves, and as the group jelled, she began to realize that she needed to help them find a community connection, “to fit into the community, however they want to fit.”
When she moved to Derry she met Saporito, and a kindred spirit. Like Swett, the 22-year-old had a passion for helping other young adults, especially those whose conditions isolated them. “He is dynamic,” Swett said.
The Derry group began meeting March 28, she said. Not all the members are on the “spectrum.” For example, one young man suffers from seizures. But all have conditions that could potentially cut them off from society, and that’s something Swett and Saporito won’t allow.
The heart of the Derry group is its “no discrimination” policy. “Nick makes it plain,” Swett said.
“My main thing,” Saporito said, “is ‘No bullying.’” The result: a group of people who, when they go out in public, are “so supportive of each other,” Swett said. She added, “We promote a ‘strength base’ rather than a deficit.” Her friendship with Saporito radiates outward to the other members, and “it’s a unique blessing.”
The Derry group has grown faster than the Concord group, and they are now combined, Swett said.
One man started with the Concord group and also comes to Derry, she said. “He asked me, ‘Can we do this every week?’” They almost do, with Concord meeting the second and fourth Tuesday of the month and Derry meeting the fourth Thursday. They have game nights, go bowling, and recently planned a cookout that turned into a pizza party because of the weather. One of the men in the group recently moved into his own home, Swett said, so the group is planning a housewarming party for him.
They will attend the Aug. 29 Fisher Cats game as a group, with one of their members throwing out the first pitch, Swett said.
She and Saporito consult often to find the best ways to help their people. They talk about a lot of issues, she said -”isolation, judgment, lack of employment.” And Saporito’s experiences have given him a desire to help others. He has felt the sting of discrimination and misunderstanding. Asked by Swett to tell “the work story,” he shot back, “Which work story?”
He has held jobs in the past and was fine until he revealed his diagnosis, Swett said. “Then they would say, ‘You can’t do this alone.’ But Nick is fully capable.” That, Swett said, is one of the things that is “most heartbreaking.” The young adults she works with have a variety of diagnoses but also a variety of talents, abilities and dreams.
She and Saporito are working to get the word out, and not just through the social connections group. They’re considering writing a book. They’ve connected Saporito with the national Asperger’s advocacy group. There may be a film: Swett is friends with documentary filmmaker Dan Habib, and “I’ve been bugging him about this for years,” she said.
It’s all about education, whether they’re bowling a perfect game or testifying before a legislature, according to Swett. “The more education we have, the more exposure we have, the more we can finally start coming together and showing the world,” she said. “Every one of us is different,” Swett said. “The only difference between Nick and me is that our brains are wired differently.”
“We want to empower young adults,” Swett added. “They have so much to give to the community. They’re creative, they have a desire to give back, but they don’t always know how to get there.”
The Concord group meets at 70 Pembroke Road. The Derry group meets in the Derry Public Library. For more information, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.