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Why we started a 'little bros' program for young men with autism

Theta Delta Chi International Fraternity works with Autism Speaks to enhance the lives of individuals with autism, so it was only natural that members at the University of Michigan would implement a Big Brothers program called “Bros UniteD” providing a safe space for boys on the spectrum to make meaningful friendships with Theta Delta Chi Brothers. What the gentlemen in charge of the program didn’t know was that “Bros UniteD” would go far beyond community service and impact their lives forever.  

As the name implies, Bros UniteD, or B.U.D., is all about building relationships. The program was started by Theta Delta Chi at Rutgers a few years ago and was just brought to the University of Michigan charge in the winter of 2016. It entails pairing “little bros” who are young men on the autism spectrum ages 10-20 with “big bros” who are brothers in Theta Delta Chi.

Over the course of the program we had eight events including: a meet & greet, going to an arcade, a game night, going to the Ann Arbor Hands on Museum, going to an indoor water park, bowling, a service day, and a grill out. Although these events formed the backbone of the program, the real intent of Bros UniteD is to make our little bros feel like a part of our brotherhood and give them the ability to experience some of the aspects of being in a fraternity. Through conversations with our little bros and their parents I feel as though this goal was accomplished. It truly was a joy to see our little bros become immersed into our brotherhood as they grew more comfortable around their big bros and became friends with each other.

Some of the best aspects of the program were just hanging out at our house playing Super Smash Bros and foosball. Although these events made our little bros feel welcome at out our house, we also wanted our little bros to be able to experience the philanthropy aspect of greek life and give them the satisfaction of helping other people. Therefore, we went to a nature preserve called the Arboretum to remove invasive species, help out the local community, and gain a greater appreciation for the outdoors. Still, much of the time there was actually spent having fun using the woods as an obstacle course.

Before the first event, each little bro filled out a questionnaire, which included what they hoped to get out of the program. Answers varied, but almost all of the little bros mentioned something about wanting to make friends and have fun. Some gave other goals such as working on sportsmanship, becoming more independent from their parents, or improving their social skills. Having the knowledge of their goals going into the program allowed us to tailor it to each of them. Furthermore, the program was all the more rewarding witnessing each of them make strides on their goals and getting positive feedback from their parents. By the second event, our little bro who wanted to work on being more independent from his parents was comfortable enough around his big bros that he was okay with his parent leaving for the entire time. At the end of the program his parents mentioned how much personal growth they saw in such a short amount of time.

At the last event we had a ceremony when we passed out awards and shirts to each of our little bros. Afterwards, one of the little bros Dave handed me a letter to share with the rest of the guys in the fraternity. Dave thanked us for inviting him to our activities and for the opportunity to make new friends.

Over the course of the program, Dave had also been creating superheroes for each of his big bros and bringing drawings of them to the events. What really struck me, however, was that in the letter he went on to mention 8 individual brothers in the fraternity and one other little bro, recalling a specific memory he enjoyed with them, thanking them, or wishing them luck in the future. He promised to continue working on his drawings and to show them to us next time we met.

At that moment I knew this program could not be a onetime thing. The fact that it had made enough of a difference to Dave to inspire him to create and draw superheroes for each of his big bros meant every ounce of energy that went into to program was worth it. Dave’s letter captured the spirit of the program and made it that much harder to see the program come to a close. Still, we’ll see Dave and all our other little bros again soon and continue to build meaningful relationships while just being dudes.

The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.