Two teenaged boys are locked in a game of chess, while another pair plays with Lego Bionicle action figures and Game Boy video games. One boy puts together a floor-sized puzzle. Another is blissfully occupied by his iPad.
Meanwhile, their mothers sit nearby around a sofa and chairs, bonding over shared experiences and leaving their kids to be themselves.
The moms, for a while, don’t have to worry whether their autistic children are following the rules of the “typical world.” They don’t have to worry that anyone will look with misunderstanding or judgment toward their kids’ behavior or their own parenting.
They’re all in a safe place here.
The Breakfast Club is a social group for pre-teens and teens and their parents that meets periodically at The Local Buzz cafe near Columbia’s Shandon and Rosewood neighborhoods. Most of the teens in the group have autism, Asperger’s syndrome or for any other reason tend to have trouble fitting into social situations.
“You can get a group of so many people that just don’t really have a belonging somewhere but realize there’s a little bit of everybody in everybody,” said Stephanie Bridgers, owner of The Local Buzz since last fall and founder of the 4-year-old social group. “They don’t have to worry about not being themselves or being different, and they can feel secure where they are.”
The mother of two autistic teenagers, as well as two typical children, Bridgers for nine years ran a support group for parents of autistic children through Family Connection, a nonprofit that supports families of disabled children.
While their conditions can be socially isolating for the children, their parents often “feel alone” as well, Bridgers said.
“With kids with autism, you have the social awkwardness,” said Kim Calvo, whose 11-year-old son, Jack, loves Legos, Star Wars and customizing his own Bionicle action figures. “When they’re smaller, they have behavior things, and they’re not comfortable a lot of times with kids their own age. So they tend to not get invited to things and get left out.”
For moms like Calvo, the Breakfast Club is not only a place to see their children be themselves in a comfortable environment among accepting peers but also to bond with other parents who understand their unique lives, challenges and joys.
On a recent Friday night, half a dozen or so moms sat around the cushy, comfortably worn arc of a sofa and at nearby tables in the cafe. They sipped smoothies and coffees and talked and laughed while leaving their kids to their own activities.
“A lot of new parents will want to correct their child (in the group), and I’m like, you know what, no. This is their safe place,” Bridgers said. “They’re not ‘on.’ They’re not at therapy. They’re being themselves with their friends. That’s why we do this.”
As for the moms, they discussed their kids’ schoolwork, milestones and just general mom stuff.
Martie Walker and Meghan Marriott met a few years ago when their sons, Christopher and Alex, were in the same autism social group at Creighton Middle School and frequently gather with the Breakfast Club for hangouts.
On that night at The Local Buzz, 14-year-old Christopher Walker was deep in thought over a game of chess with 14-year-old Yannick Felsenhardt, while 15-year-old Alex Marriott kept largely to himself and his iPad at a table by the wall.
It’s comforting, Marriott said, “to see (the kids) relaxed and not having to remember all of the rules and procedures, and if they say something stupid, it’s OK.
“And I can sit at this table and say, ‘My son ate the bed again,’ and it makes perfect sense.”
There’s a give-and-take of support and advice among the group, the parents say.
“You connect to other moms, connect to other families – how they cope, just finding information even about children’s IEPs (Individualized Education Plans),” Olga Ivashkevich said. “How do you get the best support? How do you advocate for your children? All of this comes from the community.”
Her 15-year-old son, Bogdan, didn’t speak until he was about 6 years old and struggles to cope with sensory stimulation. Now, he loves talking to people, especially adults, particularly asking them about their family members and birthdays.
He looks forward to the Breakfast Club, but often, Bogdan says, he is content to be alone, as many of his autistic peers are.
Their parents, though, crave the group’s support.
“We share resources, and everybody shares different struggles,” Ivashkevich said.
Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.