This blog post is written by is Christine Bakter, a parent who’s son is on the autism spectrum and participates in Rutgers University’s BrosUniteD (BUD) program. Theta Delta Chi Fraternity, in collaboration with Autism Speaks, developed BrosUniteD to provide teenage boys with autism an opportunity to be mentored by college students and to give them the opportunity to experience positive relationships and the bonds on brotherhood.
When I became involved with Autism Speaks, my purpose was to improve the future for my son Alex, who has autism. Through my involvement, I quickly learned that the autism community contains some of the most passionate, determined and hopeful visionaries on Earth. The majority of our community is comprised of the people you would expect: people with autism and their families, friends, teachers, and therapists. We are autism’s conscripts – drafted advocates who understand the day to day challenges that our loved ones with autism face and the urgency of the message we carry.
I hold a special place in my heart for the unexpected members of our community that cross my path – the people who hear our message and support us without a personal stake in the outcome. We see throngs of these people on Walk Day, raising funds for desperately needed research, family services and advocacy.
I recently found a whole college fraternity full of such unexpected members in the BrosUniteD (BUD) program, founded by Matt Cortland of the Rutgers University chapter of Theta Delta Chi. Not content to only raise money for the Central New Jersey Walk, Matt and his frat brothers took their commitment to a higher level. For seven weeks this past winter, the brothers gave their free time to serve as mentors – they refer to themselves as Big Bros – to several teenage boys with autism, including my son. Alex has overcome many of the communication challenges associated with autism but remains socially awkward. He craves social connection, but his approach can be confusing to his peers who don’t understand his disability. For this reason, BrosUniteD seemed like it could be beneficial because it would give him a safe and accepting environment to build those connections.
I witnessed tremendous growth in Alex as the program progressed. Usually content to pass hours in front of his computer by himself, I was barraged with constant questioning about the next BrosUniteD activity. Alex had never been so eager to participate in any program I had arranged for him; he couldn’t stop talking about it at school. I also didn’t expect the manner in which Alex suddenly wanted to emulate his Big Bros. Never caring about the clothes I selected for him, he was suddenly asking for specific items: skinny jeans and track pants and a Rutgers sweatshirt, “like the fraternity guys wear.” It may seem like such a small thing to marvel over – I realize that most parents worry that their teenager will go along with the crowd too easily, but as the parent of a teenager with autism, the fact that Alex was concerned with something so “typical” was cause for celebration!
I wasn’t the only parent witnessing such positive changes – my observations were echoed by other parents, some of whom had sons with more severe forms of autism. We agreed that our sons were just happy to be in the company of their Big Bros. It was proof positive to me that young men with autism are not so different from their typically developing counterparts. They want to be “regular guys” doing “regular guy stuff.” A program like BrosUniteD serves as a structured bridge connecting both groups of guys. All of the guys – with autism and without- seemed to benefit from the connections that were made through the BUD program, as evidenced by the willingness of graduating Big Bros to stay in touch with their Little Bros, or attend events with their Little Bros outside of the program.
I remarked to one parent at the program’s conclusion: “Do you think these college kids have any idea how important this program is? How could they possibly understand, not being parents themselves?”
I can say with certainty that someone else understood the importance of the work being done by Theta Delta Chi. On April 21, we gathered at Rutgers once again for a very special BrosUniteD activity. Mrs. Mary Pat Christie, the First Lady of New Jersey, was present to honor Matt Cortland and his co-coordinator, Alex Lewis, with the New Jersey Hero Award for the outstanding work being done on behalf of young men with autism through the BrosUniteD program. The New Jersey Hero award is designed to showcase the everyday contributions of New Jersey citizens that make our state a better place.
Thank you Matt, Alex and all of the “Big Bros” at Theta Delta Chi – the First Lady confirmed what the parents of the program participants already knew – you are heroes to our sons in every sense of the word.
To access the article about Rutgers Students Recognized as New Jersey Heroes by First Lady Mary Pat Christie, click here.
If you’re a college student that would like to get involved and/or start a buddy/mentoring program for kids affected by autism, visit the Autism Speaks U website for information.