Happy New Year! One of our goals in 2015 is to bring our community more stories about families within our community and things that are important to them.  Our first story of the new year is a deeply personal one for us because it involves two girls that we have seen grow up over the last 6 years—Abbie and Allie.  Off the bat, one of the things to note is that while autism is thought to typically affect boys 4X as much as girls, both of the girls are on the autism spectrum and at varying degrees.  Their mom, Kim Shank, is our Director of Autism Support Services and an Occupational therapist by profession working with kiddos in Early Intervention (Birth to 3).  Both mom and dad are committed to helping out our community in meaningful ways and are often seen taking time out of their super busy schedules to give back and make sure that they can reach as many families and individuals as possible. 

About 2 1/2 years ago now, one of the biggest leaps of faith for the couple came when they opened their hearts and home to strangers—college students—to come play with their daughters and start to form some kind of a bond with them.  At the time, The Tommy Foundation, had always had a presence at Franklin and Marshall College via internship and community programs, but we chose to further that by creating an actual college club on the campus called Students for Autism, where students can choose to either raise awareness about the condition or be more engaged by working in varying ways directly with individuals and their families in the community.

One of the buddies assigned to the Shank family was Julia, an international student who is interested in becoming a doctor.  Julia knew—at the time—almost nothing about autism other than what she’d read about in books or seen on tv or movies.  Kim recently reflected on her first encounter with Julia: The first time Julia came to our home, it was like watching magic happen. Our oldest daughter, Abbie, generally takes awhile to warm up to people. She does not enjoy tickles and lots of stimulation like many other kids do. Julia came to visit, and her gentle and calm presence allowed Abbie to get comfortable with her, it was almost like Abbie picked Julia to be her buddy. She took her by the hand and led her to curl up and play on the iPad. They just had such a connection! We are so thankful for her and her beautiful spirit. It is obvious that she genuinely cares about Abbie and Allie, and tries to use herself to help them both feel comfortable and calm. She has helped us at home, as well as to enjoy various Tommy Foundation activities.

Originally, since both girls are on the spectrum, the idea was that each girl had their own ‘buddy’ that worked with them and could also provide a friendly face or help to a child that needed the extra boost at our events.  Interestingly enough these girls that often find warming up to new people a little challenging actually fell in love with their own and the other’s buddy so they all work like a team now.  Julia has certainly become part of the family and loves to be with both girls. Kim added that

“Our youngest daughter, Alaina, is full of energy, and loves interaction and direction. She loves affection and stimulation. So we really have very opposite ends of the spectrum under our roof. Julia adjusts her affect to meet the needs of both our girls.” 

As an observer and supervisor for the interaction, I (Sugey) have had the joy of seeing this wonderful relationship grow over the last 2 years. It totally warms my heart to see that bond get stronger and stronger with each new visit and event we do with the family.  Julia reflected on her experience and had this to share: 

“Working with Abby and Allie has been incredibly rewarding and fun. Seeing as they warmed up to me and opened up over time was amazing. Every time I see them I get to see their improvements and growth, the new games they play, new ways they interact with each other and what their unbelievable imagination will come up with this time! I also learn a lot about the girls thanks to Kim and Dan; their input and advise is incredibly helpful. They are simply amazing, and I am so thankful they let me into the girls’ life!”

For more information about Students for Autism at F&M College or if you are interested in our buddy program or ways to get your civic groups more involved with the community please contact us.