In Finglas, a Club Brings Together Teens on the Autism Spectrum

Jack James swings a long-armed mic around him like a samurai in training for battle, between brightly coloured vegetable patches.

“If there’s a lightning strike you can just put me out here and I’ll stick this up,” says James, a member of the Meeting Place Club.

The club, for young people on the autism spectrum, helps teenagers meet. It also helps them get care and support they need at a low cost, says Dillon.

Today, the teenagers of the Finglas club are making a film with the help of Dublin City Council Culture Company.

James is working on the sound. Others are acting, or directing the camera.

“When they started out first, I think it was a ghost film,” says Sandra Dillon, the founder of the club.

“Where are we now on the film?” Dillon asks Shireen Shortt, a filmmaker who does participatory media practice with young people, who is helping the teenagers with their film.

“It’s a plant invading dreams,” Shortt says. “Then when they wake up it seemed like it actually happened in reality.”

While the teenagers are making the film, another cameraman records the process, capturing the everyday magic of the Meeting Place Club.

The Meeting Place

At the large allotment just off Prospect Hill where the club is headquartered, the teenagers have painted murals of fruits and vegetables.

Some children as young as three or four have discovered a mound of clay in the corner of the garden. They are racing up it and down it.

At the other end of the garden, parents chat by a shipping container.

Dillon, the club’s founder, points out the rows of raised vegetable patches, their borders painted in bright reds, purples and yellows.

Tufts of lavender grow in one bed. The green rugged leaves of horseradish emerge from another.

Others are empty – the one that used to hold potatoes, for example. All of the spuds have been dug up and brought home.

“A lot of the kids, they can be sensitive to colour,” says Dillon, which can affect their eating habits. “What we teach the kids here is if it grows, they have to eat it.”

Letting them see where their food comes from, and being involved in growing and cooking, helps them broaden their eating habits, she says.

They bring them home, says Dillon. “They have to send us a picture of them making it and eating it. At least we know that that’s a skill they’re after learning.”

Dillon lists other skills that they learn in the garden: planting, harvesting, cutting, cooking.

She began the club 10 years ago. She’d seen how much occupational therapy had helped her son – and also how long the waiting lists for such support could be.

“Now, these guys can’t afford to wait,” says Dillon, gesturing towards the teenagers working on the film.

The Films

The film about the club came about with the help of Dublin City Council Culture Company.

They go around the city, talking to people in different areas, seeing what is going on, says Brian Fleming, project manager with the company.

For their own film, the teenagers are figuring out the next scene – in which the dream-invading plant is to be attacked with a football.

“We landed on film because it was something that the kids were really into and it was something that we could actually do,” says Fleming. “The principle of the thing is that it’s got to come from the participants themselves.”

“We went to them kind of expecting that they’d want to do a documentary about the Meeting Place Club itself,” says Fleming.

Instead, they’ve ended up doing this kind of science-fiction film, he says.

In its own way, it’s morphed into being an unreliable documentary about the Meeting Place Club, says Fleming. “In some ways you learn more about the Meeting Place Club than [you would from] people talking seriously about it.”

More Than a Youth Club

The club is all about giving the teenagers an environment in which they feel comfortable and where they can meet others.

“I was about 19 when I started here,” says Vicky Bergin. “It made me very confident as a person.”

She now does walking tours in the city with My Streets, a company that trains people to become guides.

“I discovered I liked dealing with people because I was actually very shy and all, and I didn’t converse. I would have been a bit of a troublemaker.”

Bergin is now 25 and she comes back regularly to help out with the club as a leader.

Maryanne Kenny, Darren’s mother, says the club’s a great thing. “In some ways it’s not easy for our kids to go out,” she says.

She says she appreciates that members stay involved beyond their teenage years.

“It’s somewhere still for them to come at that age,” says Kenny, “because you can’t go everywhere you know.”

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Sean Finnan: Sean Finnan is a freelance journalist. You can reach him at [email protected]

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