ABC Illawarra / By Brooke Chandler Jun 2023
After struggling to make friends, Thomas Walters Whyte made the life-changing decision to create a social group for people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Driven by the desire to meet people who understood him, the 22-year-old has created a little community in Bowral in the NSW Southern Highlands.
"I felt alone," Thomas said.
"I was trying to connect with the members of my local horse riding club but because I was the only ASD person, I struggled. I couldn't relate to what they are saying."
With encouragement from his mother Jessica Whyte, Thomas posted the idea about a social group tailored specifically for young adults with mild ASD to Facebook.
The concept reached a greater audience when Rose Shaw from Community Circles offered her networking skills.
"There are large organisations trying to help people like me, but I just fell into the gaps," Thomas said.
"But in this small gathering, we can all enjoy a meal, chat, and soak up the not-so-busy atmosphere."
Now, every weekend Thomas sips an icy drink from a cafe accompanied by half a dozen young adults of neurodivergent backgrounds.
"I really thought it was going to be a one-time thing with a couple of people. If you've ever heard of the butterfly effect, that's what happened."
Friendships do wonders for people
Jessica has noticed significant improvements to her son's demeanour and says she was not surprised Thomas' new friends had all experienced similar difficulties when making social connections.
"[Neurodivergent people] are highly skilled. But they are just so often misunderstood," Jessica said.
"The group has been amazing. Thomas is more motivated with things; happier, smiling, sleeping better, eating better, which all comes along with feeling a part of something."
Thomas' quest for like-minded connections has also inadvertently boosted the confidence of group members.
"Everyone here is lovely," Bre Shephard said.
"It's made me so much more comfortable to be myself. I can go about my day and know that there are people out there who are like me and understand."
What is Community Circles?
Community Circles aims to bring people together to live more connected lives by listening and turning ideas into action.
The idea was founded in the United Kingdom and adopted by Australian charity Touched by Olivia, and implemented in the Wingecarribee Shire by Rose Shaw.
"We connect people to services and groups they may not have heard of that already exist in their community," Rose said.
"And if there isn't a group that people want, we'll help them to get that group going."
Community Circles has facilitated more than 500 local connections and activities in the past six months.
"People really love connecting. And we actually have people who say they follow our Facebook page on a regular basis because they love seeing the stories," Rose said.
"The niche activities and groups haven't been my idea. It's actually been about what the community wants so we put an idea out there and if the community jumps on it, then we'll go ahead with it."
Creating bigger circles for those in need
Last month, Rose was contacted by a Wollongong family seeking an Italian-speaking community member who would volunteer time to visit their aunt at a Bowral aged care home.
The elderly resident, who has asked to remain anonymous, lived in Wollongong for 50 years before she was relocated to Bowral when her advanced dementia necessitated a higher level of care.
Eager to find a visitor, Rose published a community call-out.
"Her friends and relatives, being in Wollongong and finding it challenging to travel to Bowral due to age and declining health, have left her somewhat socially isolated," the Facebook post read.
"The community response went crazy," Rose said.
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Photos by ABC Illawarra: Brooke Chandler