Laptop screen with ten people on zoom call
11 Nov

Reflections of Surviving in Strange Circumstances

What a strange year it has been! Nothing could have prepared us for a lockdown in Melbourne in 2020.

It has been a Different Journey for all of us!!!

Different Journeys runs social connection events for Autistic teenagers, adults, and families/carers. Our events facilitate peer support, skill development, information sharing and connection. They redress crippling isolation and provide safe spaces to address mental health, employment, education, and social issues. Our events allow us to learn from each other and empower our autism community.

For the last four years we have run a full calendar of events. For many participants this was their primary opportunity to connect with others. In March, COVID-19 restrictions suddenly forced us to close everything down. It was a real OMG moment. My initial concerns were how are we going to continue to support our community as for many of our attendees our events were the highlight of their and their families/carers month. After a lot of frantic running around, connecting with others, learning new tech skills, and gathering feedback from our community we were able to develop an action plan.

Our main focus was on keeping our Different Journeys autism community connected. We had great relationships with Interchange Outer East and The Misfit Project who like us were wanting to support their autism communities. We met decided to use zoom conferencing as a meaningful way to have fun, provide some employment opportunities for our autistic individuals and highlight other services in the community. We shared workload and The Misfit project focused on the adults and teens while we at Different Journeys focused on carer information sessions and providing opportunities for the LGBTQI and Autism community to connect in a safe and informative way.

Despite being a mad rush it was so important for us to offer and deliver fun and engaging programs with smaller groups of autistic teens and adults coming together over shared interests such as;

  • Pop culture
  • Uno card game
  • Film discussions
  • Footy discussions
  • Cards against humanity
  • Werewolf
  • Story Wars
  • Guess Who

For our Carers we ran information sessions with the support of other organisations including Knox council and the Brotherhood of St Laurence. We delivered information/education events as well some fun upbeat sessions. Topics included:

  • Communication with a Speech Pathologist
  • NDIS and Autism
  • Young Carers with Little Dreamers
  • Bogan Bingo
  • Minute to win it
  • Companion Card information session
  • Support for Carers
  • Easey Comedy

We proudly partnered with Ruby Mountford to offer some LGBTQI+ and Autism sessions in a safe and supported environment. We were extremely grateful for Victoria’s Gender and Equality Commissioner Ro Allen for providing us with the introduction to Ruby and look forward to working with Ruby in the future.

We commissioned an evaluation to ensure that we were meeting the needs of our community. Our findings included the following:

  • The zoom model allowed Autistic teens, adults and carers to feel welcome and safe to connect and collaborate.
  • Session content was determined by members and was rated as highly appropriate.
  • 86% of participants enjoyed each session and wanted to join another zoom session.
  • Our sessions continued to be effective and delivered positive therapeutic outcomes for Autistic people.
  • Sessional employment of Autistic individuals to co-facilitate events enabled skill development, boosted self-esteem, maintained program integrity and ensured the online sessions remained true to Different Journeys’ ethos and values.
  • The model allows Different Journeys to reach Autistic individuals who either cannot leave their home or who live in remote locations. The model also allows for focused attention on specific matters e.g. LGTBQI or Diversity issues.
  • Different Journeys ability to responsively deliver online zoom programs within two weeks of COVID-19 restrictions occurring met community need and built interest in the program.

Through our evaluations we identified the value of including allied health in our planning. We were able to bring along speech pathologist Stephanie Crawford who:

  • Ensured event promotions had appropriate language for the autistic population
  • Supported neurotypical organisers and facilitators to understand possible communication challenges that autistic facilitators and participants may face
  • Supported autistic facilitators develop workplace and social communication skills.

The Misfit Project reported some of the challenges they faced and the things they learned from working with us to put the program together so quickly. Learning opportunities included to tailor communication for each individual and how to support autistic individuals who are coming in as employees rather than participants.

The Misfit Project advised that despite the many challenges this program has been a dynamic and positive successful experience. They are keen to continue to develop and build on this program in Partnership with Different Journeys. Our two organisations share key goals of embracing diversity and facilitating inclusion. We are both committed to facilitating peer led support for the autistic community, to building and strengthening partnerships and to engaging a wider group of young people.

The team at Different Journeys are proud to say that we continued to provide supports to our community during these challenging times. We adhered to our mission of connecting our community and we were also able to provide some employment opportunities to our autism community.

To date we have run 72 zoom services, connecting with 1000 individuals both regulars and many new participants from all around the country.

The financial cost of delivering these programs has however been high. We were able to draw on some of our NDIS ILC funding and are grateful to have received modest COVID grants from both Nillumbik and Knox Councils.  We are now actively looking for opportunities to obtain new funding to be able to continue this program as we cannot afford to provide these Zoom sessions without new money.

We were excited that we were able to work in partnership with so many other organisations and with an amazing amount of behind the scene assistance from supporters and volunteers. We have survived strange circumstances. We’ve learning new ways of operating and connecting. We’ve adapted to survive challenging, scary, out of routine ways to operate. We have done it. It’s amazing to see how much we can do together that we can’t to apart.

What a different Journey it has been this year.

Written by Mel Spencer, Executive Officer, Different Journeys.

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