Thriving on Two Spectrums: How a new partnership is supporting a unique need for our kids

On a regular Sunday evening last March, something remarkable happened: Michael Joy made plans with a friend. It’s the kind of thing most teens do: while playing a board game, they exchanged phone numbers and made plans to play a video game together.

For Michael Joy, it was a big moment: “That hasn’t happened in like five years,” said her mom, Marianna. “It’s a really big deal.” Michael Joy came out as transgender a few years ago. She’s also on the autism spectrum. “A lot of times it’s difficult for autistic people to get out and socialize,” said her mom. “If you have a gender difference, that’s further isolating.”

A new partnership between the Arc of King County and Gender Diversity, supported by Best Starts for Kids, is working to change that. Every other month, they host Thriving on Two Spectrums, a peer support group specifically for gender diverse young people and their families, staffed by adult volunteers who are also gender diverse or neuro diverse themselves.

“My daughter had never met another person who is autistic and transgender until she came to this group,” said Marianna.  “Her mind was kind of blown to see all these other kids and adults who are on the spectrum and gender diverse in some way.”

A new partnership to address a unique need

The idea for Thriving on Two Spectrums came when staff from the two organizations connected at a meeting of Best Starts for Kids awardees. Arc of King County had noticed many kids participating in their healthy relationships curriculum for children with disabilities were also trans or non-binary. Gender Diversity was looking for additional support for parents in their family support group raising children who are on the autism spectrum or neuro diverse. Each organization had the expertise the other needed.

Together, they developed a group uniquely designed for trans and gender diverse kids of all ages who are neuro diverse. In contrast to Gender Diversity’s other youth groups, there are no structured activities or pressure to socialize. While their parents meet in a separate space, young people can play board games, make art, play video games, or just hang out with volunteers who understand their experience.

“At a Best Starts for Kids learning circle, we hit upon this idea to collaborate with Arc of King County. Together, we leveraged our experiences with gender diversity and neuro-diversity to create the group where youth and their parents can engage, explore their unique gender conversations, and express themselves,” said Vatsa Sreedhara, Program Manager with Gender Diversity. “We are learning a lot from the parents and youth about building community and meaningful connections. The feedback from the group has been heartwarming, meaningful, and encouraging.”

Parents share insights on raising their kids

In a separate room, parents meet separately to learn, talk, laugh, and share insights on caring for and raising their kids. In conversations facilitated by staff from Gender Diversity and Arc of King County, they can ask questions like, “What if my child changes their mind?” or “How do I legally change the name on my child’s ID?”

While many of these are common questions for parents of trans or nonbinary kids, for Marianna the group has been the first time she’s felt like other parents understand the unique challenges of parenting a gender diverse child with autism. “A lot of things are different for parents raising kids who have the gender stuff and the autism stuff,” she said “Our kids often don’t follow the ‘normal’ transition story. They can be very rigid about certain things, and go about things on a completely different timeline.”

For example, while many trans and gender nonbinary children choose a new name as part of their transition, a neuro diverse young person may feel less pressure to conform to gendered social expectations like changing their name. “Other parents might not understand that,” said Marianna. “It’s very important to have this specific support group for that intersection.”

Interested in volunteering or attending Thriving on Two Spectrums with your family?

Gender Diversity and Arc of King County hold Thriving on Two Spectrums meetings every other month. Visit http://www.genderdiversity.org/events/ to view upcoming meeting dates.

Gender Diversity conducts a short intake call with interested families and volunteers to help protect the privacy and safety of families in the group. Email info@genderdiversity.org to arrange an intake call or learn about volunteer opportunities.

*Names in this story have been changed.

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