Updated: Aug 12
On the second Sunday of almost every month, young adults with autism pour into Pompei, a popular Italian restaurant in Chicago's Little Italy neighborhood. They are attending the longest-running meet-up for people with autism in the Chicago area. The meet-up is hosted by Urban Autism Solutions, a non-profit that provides residential, vocational and social opportunities to young adults with autism.
“We know that social isolation is very common for young adults with autism,” says Heather M. Tarczan, executive director of Urban Autism Solutions. “Part of that has to do with anxiety and reluctance around reaching out to other people. We have found that having a regularly-scheduled social event brings a sense of relief to our participants that there’s this social opportunity they can look forward to without having to arrange it or schedule it themselves.”
ABOVE: Enjoying pizza, board games and friendship at the Urban Autism Solutions monthly meet-up at Pompei Restaurant.
The meet-up welcomes young adults ages 18 to 35 years old. Participants sign up and pay a $10 fee to help cover the cost of pizza, salad, dessert and soft drinks. Board games are available to help break the ice. There are about 25 regulars, some of whom have been attending for more than six or seven years. Urban Autism Solutions has been managing this meet-up since 2013.
A study from the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute found that approximately one in four young adults with autism has not seen or talked with friends or been invited to social activities in the past year. Urban Autism Solutions provides a lifeline to young adults with autism from as far away as Dixon and Northwest Indiana, who want to make friends through its monthly meet-up. Other social opportunities offered by Urban Autism Solutions include ‘Urban Hike with Mike’, a weekly outing for cheap eats, and other events.
“I look forward to the meet-up because it’s the only time that I can be around people who are like me,” says Bradon Byrd, 29, who has been coming to the meet-up since 2014. A huge anime fan, Bradon has found other people he can discuss his interests with at the meet-up.
“We were really looking for an opportunity for Bradon to build his socialization skills with other young adults with autism, and gain some confidence,” says Beverly Byrd, Bradon’s mom. Discouraged by the groups she found, which tended to be in the suburbs and lacked diversity, Beverly finally connected with Urban Autism Solutions.
“The event Bradon looks forward to the meet-up,” says Beverly. “When he is struggling, the other people at the meet-up understand and that gives him hope.”
The meet-up is for people who can attend without supports or parents. “This was intentional,” says Julie Tracy, co-founder of Urban Autism Solutions. “We want participants to be able to be themselves without parental input. It lets participants have a good time in their own way and encourages them to engage with one another.”
After dropping off their attendee, parents or support people can get a meal at the restaurant or chat with Urban Autism Solutions staff.
“We are always looking to meet new people and invite them into our community, especially because we know there are so few opportunities for young adults with autism to get together regularly,” says Tarczan.