Go Ask Mom

Go Ask Mom

After daughter's autism diagnosis, mom starts group to find more girls like her

Posted August 9, 2015

I feature local moms here every Monday on Go Ask Mom. And I'm always amazed by the women I feature and the work they do. I walked away from my quick meeting with Dawn Dudley, a Durham mom of two and founder of My Circle of Girls, inspired.

Dudley's older daughter, now 6, was diagnosed with autism at the age of 2. While a diagnosis like this might be overwhelming for anyone, Dudley decided to not only work to help her daughter, but now other girls with autism.

Dudley founded My Circle of Girls about 18 months ago. The group is designed for girls who are on the autism spectrum. It offers social activities so they can bond and, Dudley hopes, build life-long friendships.

Dudley tells me it was difficult to find other girls with autism in the community. About four times as many boys as girls are diagnosed with autism, according to My Circle of Girls' website. Research finds that many girls might go undiagnosed because autism can present differently in girls than in boys.

Experts don't know exactly why this happens. Regardless, Dudley knew she wanted her daughter to have friends, who understand her struggles and can celebrate her victories.

"No matter what, I don't know what it's like to have autism," she said. "These other girls do."

But Dudley tells me she's gotten as much out of it as her daughter. She's building a community for the girls, but also the parents.

During one excursion, Dudley tells me her daughter was having a particularly hard time. A 12-year-old girl, who also is on the spectrum, came over to tell Dudley that when she was younger, she used to have the same issues, but she's working through them. It's getting better.

"My Circle of Girls is much bigger than I ever anticipated," Dudley tells me.

Dudley shares more about My Circle of Girls in this Q&A and video interview.

Go Ask Mom: Tell us a bit about your daughter. When was she diagnosed with autism? How old is she now?

Dawn Dudley: Trinity is an amazing person. I look at her and realize that she is one of the strongest people I know. To think each day her life is like walking uphill, but she still does it. Maybe because she doesn’t know any other way of living she doesn’t complain, she just does it. And looks cute doing it too! LOL! She fights through the many distractions to do things I take for granted because they are easy to do for me. Again, my baby girl is an amazing person. I feel lucky to be her mother.

My daughter Trinity was diagnosed with autism in 2011. She was two years old. She met all of her developmental milestones until 2 years of age. We knew almost immediately that there was a challenge present. We just didn’t know what it was at the time. I have done some work in the area of mental health/developmental disabilities and substance abuse. Therefore, when certain characteristics of autism began to surface in Trinity, I knew we needed her to be evaluated and action had to be taken immediately. She is now six years old. She is doing well and has made a lot of progress after experiencing language regression as a part of her challenges with autism.

GAM: What was your experience as you tried to find activities and resources for her in the area?

DD: At the point of her diagnosis, I spent a year with my nose to the grind, focusing on how to provide her with the best therapy to recover her from autism. At a point, I began to give attention to the concerns I had with her interaction with other peers, particularly girls. At that time, she was not getting invited to birthday parties or playdates with any peers. Knowing how important friendships are to shaping who we are as individuals, I spent a lot of time worrying about whether she would ever have friends to trust and support her. I especially prayed for her to have great girlfriends like I have had for many years. When we started taking her to activities in the autism community, we would meet mostly, if not only, boys. Boys are great, but I wanted her to build relationships with girls that could be her life-long friends. There are a number of resources in the Durham area that specialize in supporting people living with autism. We continued to take her to these activities. We would cling to any girls we met or heard of that also were on the autism spectrum. When I realized that we would remain on the hunt, I started to search for girl-specific activities for girls with special needs and autism. I could not find any. Therefore, after some teary nights, I began drafting a model for what a girls group would look like. Hence, My Circle of Girls was birthed.

GAM: Why did you start Circle of Girls?

DD: Unapologetically, I share that My Circle of Girls started because I was desperately looking for friends for my daughter. Most parents want their child to be more than well-liked; you want them to be accepted. Every parent of a child with special needs understands what I am saying and the struggle of raising a child who is intentionally and unintentionally excluded. My Circle of Girls began as a way for my daughter to meet other girls living with autism. As the group grew and grew, it became clear early on that the need and overall purpose was greater than I ever imagined. The need to connect girls with autism and their families with others of the like is a local, regional, statewide, national and global need! My daughter has gained more than friends, she has gained sisters. Through our monthly activities, she has unique outlets with these sisters as they build a community that will be forever theirs to cherish.

As a mother, with a lot on me day-to-day, I am always looking for things to move off my plate. My Circle of Girls has never been one of those. This movement is a part of a purpose greater than myself. A fellow community leader focused on girl mentorship, advocacy and empowerment, Carrie B. Cook, founder of EmpowHERment, once said “your obedience to God's call is tied to someone else’s destiny.” I say this with strain, but I guess my daughter had to experience autism for this calling to be fulfilled.

GAM: Tell us a bit about what the group does?

DD: Our group meets monthly for unique social and service activities in the community. Our purpose is to bond girls while offering them fun experiences. Parents have told us that My Circle of Girls has been more effective than some therapies for their daughters. While the girls are gaining these experiences, their monthly encounters address the crux of social issues/challenges associated with autism.

Our group has done everything from dance/movement with a world renowned dancer to pottery making and hiking.

Our group helps to build life-long relationships between our girls and their families. Our aim is to change the social course for the many girls living with autism in our community and, hopefully, one day, our country.

GAM: How do you hope Circle of Girls will grow over time?

DD: In August 2014, we expanded our group from ages 2 to 6 to 2 to 11. When necessary, depending on the programming offered, we separate the girls by age. We are currently working on focus groups for the fall that will involve girls ages 7 to 11 and 12 to 15 that will help us better understand what type of programming older girls want and need. This insight will be helpful for our long term plans to further expand our age range of participants. In 2017, we hope to bring girls ages 12 to 15 and 16 to 18 into Our Circle. Our group will address our girls’ social and service desires as they grow. We are already talking about prom preparation for our older girls!  I get excited just thinking about it.  We already have inquires from older girls, so I look forward to having them join us in the near future.

In April 2014, we started with 8 girls. Since that time, our highest attendance has been 21. We have had nearly 150 total attendees in just over one year!

Another part of our long-term plans will be expansion throughout the state and country. We already have several girls from outside of the Triangle that attend our group. Some parents have emailed us with interest from Charlotte (NC), Virginia and Australia!

My Circle of Girls' website has much more information about the group and how you can get involved.

Go Ask Mom features local moms every Monday.

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