By Lindsay Peyton
Jonathan Chism envisioned an organization that would bring together fathers of children with autism – one that would create opportunities for them to meet, learn from and support one another. The dads would also create meet-ups for youth on the spectrum and their families. When the lay leader at Riverside UMC could not find an existing group, he decided to create one himself. Now, the Autism Dads Social Club is preparing to celebrate its first year in action.
The Autism Dads Social Club will host its upcoming holiday party from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 10 at Riverside UMC, 4920 Cullen Blvd. in Houston. Children on the spectrum and their families are invited to enjoy music, games, sensory activities, food and refreshments. Tickets are available on Eventbrite at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/holiday-party-tickets-465098691707.
Chism said that the event also marks the first year for the Autism Dad Social Club. The idea for the group started even further back – rooted in his own family’s experience with autism.
Chism’s son Jay, now 10, was diagnosed with autism eight years ago. “It was, at the time, shocking,” Chism recalled. “We went through a moment of disbelief and denial.”
Then, he and his wife discovered resources to help. “From there it’s been a journey,” he said.
All the while, Chism would meet other families with autistic children. “It started to seem like more than a coincidence,” he said. “I felt the spirit move me.”
Two of the other fathers – Emmanuel Arowolo and Jesse Esparza– became co-founders of the Autism Dads Social Club. It began simply enough, Chism described: “Let’s get together, and let’s get our kids together.”
“It was amazing just to connect with other parents who could relate to our experience,” he said. “We learned a lot by being able to discuss our common challenges, getting tips and suggestions. We decided that we needed to do this more – to create a space to exchange more.”
The dads made it their mission to reach more families. Chism said that talking to other fathers of autistic children makes it easier to open up. “It’s all understood,” he said. “Everyone can have a good time and share with each other. That’s been a beautiful thing.”
In addition, children benefit from meeting each other. Chism explained that autistic youth can struggle with communication, social skills and building relationships. He felt that starting the group could help facilitate making friends.
Building a tight knit group of families
“The hope is that we create social opportunities for our kids so that they have friends they can relate to,” Chism said. “They won’t feel isolated. They will recognize, ‘I have another person similar to me.’ And that can help them accept themselves and flourish even more.”
Ultimately, he hopes to build a tight-knit community of families touched by autism. He said, “Who knows what the dads, collaborating together with our wives, can build for the benefit of all our kids in the long-term?”
Already, the dads have met for bowling, pool and golf in Hermann Park. They have taken their children out to lunch and hosted family picnics. Next year, Chism plans to add sporting events to the list.
“It’s an atmosphere where everyone feels included, welcomed and accepted,” Chism said. “We invite any dad with an autistic child to show up. For family events, we include parents, grandparents, siblings who are neurotypical, whoever wants to connect with us.”
His current goal is for more dads to join the group. He wants to eventually have parents of all ages – so they can mentor each other through the stages of fatherhood.
Recently, Autism Dads Social Club developed a partnership with the Autism Society of Texas. By collaborating with an existing nonprofit, Chism explained, there are even greater opportunities for growth for the local group.
“We’re expecting and anticipating bigger and better things going forward,” he said. “It’s definitely needed. We want parents and kids to know they are not alone. There are others on this journey. The only way they’ll know that is if we connect and support each other.”
Originally from Arkansas, Chism received his bachelor’s degree at Rice University, his Master of Divinity at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology and doctorate in religious studies at Rice University. He now serves as assistant professor of history at the University of Houston-Downtown.
Chism is an ordained minister and serves on the Church & Society Team of the Texas Annual Conference, and is the lay leader of Riverside UMC in Houston.