For people with autism, social activities can be both difficult and stressful. This can often lead to avoidance of such situations, which in turn leads to isolation. As humans are social beings, lack of interaction with other people can leave many feeling depressed.
For one young woman with autism, this was her experience, at least until she found a social group for women with autism.
Lauren is a 22-year-old woman with autism who found herself feeling depressed from spending so much time alone at her house. She was struggling to get a job as well, which just made her feel more hopeless. When she moved from New Jersey into New York City she did not have many friends initially, but then she found a social club for women with autism.
All about Felicity House
Felicity House is an organization that is “devoted to the success, creativity, and happiness of women with autism.” It is a non-clinical program that is just for women with autism. They hold a variety of events every week and offer space for women to explore their creativity and be social with one another in a safe, supportive, and understanding environment. Located in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City, the Felicity House works hard to try and make each event accessible to women with a variety of interests and capabilities. Women who come to the Felicity House for the first time are paired up with a staff member. This person becomes her contact for questions or concerns she may have. The next step is what they describe as the “discovery phase.” This is the process whereby the staff at the Felicity House get to know the new member so that they can help her find activities or events that fit her needs and interests. Their organization is based in the knowledge that each person is unique. After the discovery phase, the staff and new member create a plan together that makes the most sense for the newcomer. This plan can also change over time.
The activities and events that people can engage in are as diverse as the people themselves. Felicity House hosts events such as movie nights and Zumba exercise groups, as well as poetry performances and lectures. One of the goals of the Felicity House is to help women with autism make meaningful connections with others. They provide an environment where women can bond over their interests. Open door hours at Felicity House are times during the week where patrons can come to use the space as they choose. Emma, a 32-year-old nonfiction writer explained how some women choose to use this time to do karaoke or dance. Emma prefers to play card games or work with clay. There is not a right or wrong way to use this time. Emma also explained that the “puzzle of doom” is a common point of interest. This 1,000-piece puzzle has been stumping the house members for many weeks.
What makes Felicity House different?
The Felicity House is a place where women can be women. They discuss movies, recent events, and generally just enjoy each other’s company. In the busy outside world, this type of social interaction can be especially difficult. Unfortunately, many people do not understand what autism is or how it affects people’s ability to interact socially. This can lead to an immense amount of stigma that can make the challenging situation of engaging with people socially even more difficult.
The executive director of Felicity House, Beth Finkelstein explained what she thinks is unique about the organization, “We’re non-clinical, we’re non-directive, we’re non-time limited. If you think about the friendships that you have, and the networks that you have, they’re not developed through a course, or overnight, or with a specific set of skills. It’s just a way for people to connect with one another and find joy and shared experiences. And that’s what we do.”
Not everyone feels like they need clinical support, job resources, or guidance. Some people just want to be social. For Emma, this is what she loves about Felicity House. She heard about a place where women like her could “just hang out and do stuff,” and that was exactly what she wanted.
There are a few requirements for participation, but they are not extremely limiting. Women who want to participate must be 18 years or older and have a certain level of independence. This is simply because the women who are there to engage with others, need to have the will and ability to do so, even if they need a little support. The staff works to create events and activities that will appeal to the diverse group of women there, and then the women do their part to participate in whatever way they can.
Finkelstein explained that the abilities of the women vary immensely. Some live alone and are in graduate school, while others live with their parents and need assistance with self-care and other daily activities. But all the women that come to Felicity House just want to make friends and interact with people who understand.
About the house
Felicity house is just that – a house. The ambience of the space is designed to be comfortable, welcoming, and peaceful. There is a beautiful wooden staircase leading upstairs just after the main entrance. The space contains cozy couches, and a television. The art room has all the craft supplies that the women may need. There are also quiet rooms where, if needed, women can take a break from more stimulating environments and relax their senses.
The founder of Felicity House is also a woman with autism. She launched the house in 2015 with a unique understanding of the needs of women with autism. One of the issues that she reported encountering in her own life was sexism in co-ed systems.
Autism is often thought of as something that affects primarily boys. However, recently more and more research is showing that women and girls with autism are frequently misunderstood, misdiagnosed, and under-served. Like many medical issues, this is largely because most of the studies of autism have been done on boys, and we all know that men and women are different. With many conditions, including autism, symptoms in women can present differently than they do in men. One senior lecturer in clinical psychology at the University College London explains that one of these differences is that women and girls tend to be more interested in socializing than men are. The ability of women to mask their autistic tendencies and mimic the behavior of peers leads to them being overlooked and not receiving the support that they need. This behavior is called “camouflaging.” Previously literature has said that the ratio of boys to girls with autism is 4 to 1. More recent research is indicating that this number is closer to 3 to 1.
While this research is promising, co-ed organizations are still overwhelmed with men, and female only groups are relatively scarce. This means that oftentimes the interests of women are not reflected well in these groups. Finkelstein says that this is what Felicity House is aiming to change. It is for this reason that Allison, a 25-year-old woman with autism was super excited when she heard about the Felicity House. She had tried co-ed groups, but said it was exhausting being surrounded by guys all the time. Lauren had also tried co-ed groups that were oversaturated with men, and said that they would often try to hit on her. Having an organization that caters specifically to women has been much appreciated by the patrons. The women can feel free to let down their camouflaging guards that they use in the rest of society, and truly be themselves. There is not the same pressure to avoid making social mistakes as there is in the outside world. The people at Felicity House understand that socialization can be a challenge. It is a safe space.
The Felicity House is not the only option in the world for women with autism to socialize. There are organizations and social support groups for women in various cities in the country. If you or someone you know may be interested in a group like this, do a little research on what is offered in your community. Though women-exclusive groups are not as common as co-ed groups, they still exist, and perhaps with time will become more prominent.