‘Safe, inclusive and judgment free’: How a Thunder Bay group is making space for adults with autism
Excitement fills the room at the Rowan Tree Collective as a small group of young adults scan the Bingo cards in front of them, searching for the latest number called.
Someone leaps from their seat and frantically shouts “Bingo.” Friends and family cheer them on as they rush over to claim their prize.
This space is something that was missing from Thunder Bay just a few months ago.
The Rowan Tree Collective is a new programming hub for adults with autism and other neurodiversities. It was started this year by local parents who saw a lack of activity options for their own adult children.
“Families are sort of left to cobble together their own opportunities for their adult children,” said Michelle Murdoch-Gibson, the communications director and co-founder of the group.
“A lot of these folks are turning 21 and will spend the rest of their adult lives at home … So we’re trying to find something to meet the needs of a diverse population. Individuals who don’t fit normal employment and post-secondary education standards, but still have some skills,” she said.
“We needed to find a place that was safe, inclusive and judgment free.”
Finding a place to thrive
A common theme for young adults with autism and other exceptionalities who are leaving secondary school is the struggle to find spaces for growth, social interaction and learning that are not in the standard post-secondary or job settings.
This was the case for Murdoch-Gibson’s own son, Rowan, who has autism, she said, adding that even before he aged out of school, finding the right place for him to thrive had been a struggle.
She and her husband took Rowan out of public high school because they felt their son’s needs were not being met, she said.
“He’s a great kid. He has many great gifts and skills,” Murdoch-Gibson said. “We found that the school system did not really suit him well. They try to fit a lot of square pegs into round holes in systems like that.”
She and her husband found ways to provide Rowan opportunities to gain life skills and interaction while learning at home, she said. As Rowan headed into his adult years, they were inspired to try to create a place where he and others could feel like they belonged.
This summer, Murdoch-Gibson and her husband, Paul Gibson, piloted the program, along with Renée Fortin, whose son Noah also takes part in the program.
Every day is a little different at Rowan Tree. They focus on five branches of programming” Recreation and entertainment, health and wellness, active citizenship, life skills, and employment and volunteerism.
From ‘act of citizenship’ to ‘great life skill’
On this day, after a morning yoga class wraps up, collective members gather around tables to make sandwiches to bring to St. Andrew’s Dew Drop Inn, a soup kitchen in Thunder Bay’s north core.
Everyone works together on the sandwiches and then walks them over to the Dew Drop Inn, where they visit with soup kitchen volunteers who provide just over 300 meals a day to anyone who needs one.
Everyone leaves the Dew Drop Inn with smiles, a rewarding exchange for both those from the Rowan Tree Collective and the Dew Drop Inn.
“So since we started doing this for the Dew Drop Inn, everyone is pro-level sandwich makers,” said Murdoch-Gibson.
“We decided to take the skills they were learning during that volunteer opportunity and now, every Tuesday, we have everyone make their own lunch here on site … It started out as an act of citizenship and evolved into this great life skill where we have everyone making their own lunch once a week.”
The Rowan Tree Collective is a community for not only the participants, but for the parents and family members of those with children with developmental disabilities.
Tereza Biloski and her son Ethan have been with the program from the beginning. They enjoy the engaging social aspects of the collective.
“There is nothing after high school … This is giving him a purpose, a routine, structure, and learning …. constant learning, skills, friendships. It’s really rewarding,” Biloski said.
Founders of the collective said they expect to hit maximum capacity for the program in the near future, and the demand shows how greatly it was needed.
They said they’ll work hard to accommodate everyone who needs to be included in their programming, but they also hope it will inspire others to create even more opportunities for adults who are neurodiverse in Thunder Bay.