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The AAA Project: Building friendships, brick by brick

Written by Alyssa and Lachlan Bolger

“So no one told you life was gonna to be this way … (clap, clap, clap, clap, clap)”

Do you have the theme tune to TV show ‘Friends’ in your head now? He he he. Sorry! But it is a good tune (at least we think so).

And it leads to the theme of this blog post. It’s all about friendship. What it looks like, and what (in our experience so far) it should not look like! And why the want of genuine friendship for all kids, led to the development of our little not-for-profit called ‘Alyssa’s Autism Acceptance Project’.

My name is Alyssa, and my younger brother is called Lachlan. We are both proud autistic teenagers and we are writing this post together (with a little help from our autistic parents), because we want everyone to know how important friendship is to us, as we know there are Neurotypicals out there who think autistic people don’t care about having friends.

On my first day of pre-primary, I met an awesome girl who loved SpongeBob SquarePants as much as I did. Although neither of us talked much back then (as Mum and Dad say, talking is so overrated!), we connected on other levels. We became instant best friends, and we are still BFFs a decade later!

I think it helps that my BFF is also autistic, because, as I’ve since learned, our idea of friendship can look a bit different to non-autistics.

Lachlan’s first years of school were a little different to mine. He had more students in his class, and the kids would get pretty noisy during the day. Lachlan really struggled with this and sometimes had to spend time in the quiet room with his Education Assistant. He says that he had a few kids that he played with back then, but not really any close friends like me and my BFF. He would have liked some friends, but he found it all a bit overwhelming. So, Lachlan asked Mum and Dad to homeschool him and he left school at the beginning of year 3. Now he’s about to start year 9 in homeschool and he goes to the Emergency Services Cadets each week. There are some cool kids at cadets that love the West Coast Eagles as much as he does, so they all get along pretty well.

Lachlan and I have learned that making friends is all about having something in common. That’s why we started our Lego club called BrickTime a few years ago. It’s a safe place that’s seen lots of friendships, because of a common love of Lego. Some of the Lego builds have been amazing! We were even going to organise an exhibition to show off these builds, but COVID-19 put a stop to that. Hopefully, we’ll get to do it one day.

Along with BrickTime, the other thing we do as the AAA Project is travel to schools to talk to kids about autism. We started doing this because of a message that I received while I was the Telethon kid back in 2015. A young autistic girl (who was so happy to discover that she wasn’t the only autistic girl through seeing me on TV) sent a message to ask if I would be her friend. She said she didn’t have any friends in her small country town, because nobody ‘got her’. I would have loved to have been her friend but, unfortunately, I had no contact details for her (and I didn’t even know her name). So, we set off travelling around WA, in the hope that we might find her.

We talked to kids from schools as far south as Albany and as far north as Kununurra. Lachlan and Dad did all the behind-the-scenes tech stuff, and Mum and I did the presentation. It felt so good to see kids listening and wanting to learn about autism.

Some of the questions we were asked by the kids were awesome, like how they can better support their autistic siblings or school friends. We were also asked many times what the hardest part of being autistic is, to which we answered, ‘Ignorance and misunderstanding!’

One of our pet frustrations is when a non-autistic kid gets praised for being a friend to an autistic kid.  We’ve always wondered why someone should be considered a ‘hero’ just for being our friend? Where is our credit for being friends with the non-autistic kids? Anyway, we would prefer that everyone treats others with kindness and respect. Genuine friendships are wonderful.

The best part of it all, though, are the moments when we know we have helped other kids find their autistic pride.

During the school talks, we talk about our autistic tribe and how awesome it is when you find other tribe members. This is usually the point that the autistic students in the room will put their hands up to acknowledge that they are autistic.

During one school talk, a young student jumped to his feet and yelled out, ‘I’m one of you! I’m one of your tribe! I’m proud to be autistic too!’

He was so happy and so excited. It was such an awesome moment, but the most amazing part was when his teacher came up to us after the talk, and told us that the student had not wanted anyone to know that he was autistic before that moment! We also got a message from the student’s parents a few weeks later, saying what a positive impact the talk had had on their son.

We had another parent message us after her son had seen one of our school talks, to let us know that he had come home and said that we helped him learn about himself. “How can four complete strangers teach me more about myself than I could?” he said.

That message made us all quite emotional. Messages like those just make all the effort of organising and presenting the talks worthwhile!

Although I’m yet to find my future friend who messaged me that day, I hope that one day I will.

To follow Alyssa and Lachlan’s autism advocacy work through the AAA Project, please visit:  www.facebook.com/theaaaproject

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