Social opportunities for neurodivergent adults flourish locally

BUSINESS WITH A HEART: Creating a place of belonging is part of what motivated Ashley Deck to open Madam Clutterbuckets Neurodiverse Universe, a gift shop on Battery Park Avenue staffed by people with developmental disabilities. Her 30-year-old son, Foster, is on the autism spectrum and has a speech disorder and hearing loss. Photo by Jessica Wakeman

Rebecca Blalock of Hendersonville noticed that she actually felt relieved during the two years she and her family isolated due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“As a neurodivergent person, it was kind of nice to have no social obligations,” she explains. Finally, she didn’t have to explain to anyone why she didn’t want to eat in a loud, crowded restaurant.

But by 2023, Blalock wanted to reignite her social life. She knew from experience that she feels most comfortable with other people who are neurodivergent; she can feel stigmatized by neurotypical people who “still have Dustin Hoffman [from] Rain Man in their mind” as an example of a neurodivergent person, she explains. So she put feelers out on Facebook for a support group for neurodivergent-identifying women.

“Tons of people responded,” she recalls. There was a common feeling that while many activities were available for neurodivergent kids, adults didn’t have an outlet to talk about themselves. Blalock started a monthly social for neurodivergent-identifying women, and in the first few meetups, “unilaterally they said things like ‘I haven’t made a new friend in years!’” A few months later, Blalock added a monthly crafting group for neurodivergent-identifying women. Both take place at Full Circle Community Wellness, a mental wellness and counseling center in Hendersonville operated by Blalock’s husband, Dr. Matt Snyder.

It’s tricky to pinpoint exactly how many adults in North Carolina are neurodivergent, a category which includes conditions such as autism spectrum disorder, dyslexia or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Much of the data collected about autism spectrum disorder in North Carolina is about children. However, some people don’t receive a diagnosis until adulthood, and women in particular often aren’t diagnosed until later in life. It’s also worth noting that any count of adults who are neurodivergent may not include people who’ve self-diagnosed, as Blalock did. (However, a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder from a medical provider or psychologist is required to receive autism services through Medicaid.)

There are numerous therapeutic services in Asheville, and often social activities can grow from those connections. There are also some businesses that cater to kids with sensory processing disorders, like We Rock the Spectrum Kids Gym in Asheville or the Asheville Jewish Community Center’s Camp Tikvah.

The logistics of being a neurodivergent adult in Asheville, however, can create certain speed bumps when it comes to socializing. “Asheville is the most amazing place because if people are on the spectrum, they speak up and you can find your community,” says Ashley Deck, the mother of an autistic adult. On the other hand, “if you’re neurodivergent, especially if you’re on the spectrum, and you have a social impact in your life from your disability, managing and planning social activity is daunting and overwhelming. My son wants to do that — but he cannot figure out how to do it in a way that’s comfortable to him.”

Some help is emerging to address the needs of neurodivergent adults, but it’s a process.

Social groups

The activity “hub” for people on the spectrum is Arms Around ASD, according to Autism Society of North Carolina Western Regional Director Michael LePage. The nonprofit provides support for them along with their families and caregivers, regardless of age or ability to pay.

Founder Michele Louzon started operating Arms Around ASD out of her basement at first, and in 2021 it moved to the Asheville Mall. The new space has multiple treatment rooms, a kitchen for learning skills and an indoor garden. Numerous daily activities include yoga, crochet, gardening, financial wellness classes, line dancing, karaoke, American Sign Language tutoring and art. Some volunteers also bring in their pets, including guinea pigs and dogs. Nine years in, the nonprofit offers 40 different services and has 80 volunteers.

Arms Around ASD also hosts support groups for Autistic Adults United and Autistic Teens United. The latter was started by local activist Danny Landry and provides activities and games.

Louzon found her niche working with adults with autism. “I thought we were going to start this nonprofit and see all these kids — the reality is we didn’t,” she says. Although some middle schoolers and high schoolers participate in activities — which are available to all ages, according to the organization’s public calendar — the clientele is “mostly adults. They’re really not getting these extra things [elsewhere].”

“These extra things” are provided intentionally, Louzon says. She recalls learning at an autism-related conference that “the most important thing for success for adults on the spectrum — and they define success not just as getting but keeping a job — was developing executive functioning.” Therefore all of Arms Around ASD’s activities focus on executive functioning, which Cleveland Clinic describes as planning and problem solving, inhibition control and working memory.

Arms Around ASD also focuses on self-care. Visitors can receive chair massages or acupuncture or get fairy hair or nails done, all with suggested donations to the practitioners. Louzon says she’s noticed that many of the people who want massages are the parents or support staff of people with autism — an indication their needs are perhaps underserved.

Louzon has no personal connection to autism herself, she explains. Instead, she was inspired by friends with a 19-year-old son who has considerable intellectual disabilities and what they’ve shared about the “struggles of life with a child who needs a lot of supports.”

Socializing “is really tricky —  not everybody wants that, or they do but they just don’t know how to make it happen,” Louzon says. Some people who are on the spectrum can have rigid thinking in terms of ideas or interests, and so “it’s not easy to find people who are exactly like you,” she explains. Additionally, some people who are on the spectrum can have hyperfocused interests and the ability to get very deep and detailed about topics that others might not share.

Friendships have grown out of Arms Around ASD, but just fostering togetherness is important, Louzon explains. “They know they have a place to go that’s just for them and encourages a sense of community and belonging. The belonging is really important.”

‘A chasm’

Creating a place of belonging is part of what motivated Deck to open Madam Clutterbuckets Neurodiverse Universe, a gift shop on Battery Park Avenue staffed by people with developmental disabilities. Her 30-year-old son, Foster, is on the autism spectrum, has a speech disorder and has hearing loss.

“As my son Foster got older and left school, there’s just this cliff — a chasm — that kids drop off into,” Deck says. “There’s no safety net of connection for folks on the spectrum when they leave [school].” People on the spectrum with more significant challenges may qualify for social services due to their complex needs. “But if you are functioning at levels where you can be employed and go to work independently, there’s less [work] out there,” Deck explains. She thinks some employers find it “intimidating” to accommodate the needs of people who are neurodivergent.

Foster interacts with other people frequently when he plays video games, Deck says. But she’s concerned that screen time isn’t conducive to making real connections. In contrast, Deck saw how beneficial it was when Foster was hired to work at a bowling alley in Atlanta, where the family used to live. “The light started coming out,” she says.  “Every day was a new day. If something happened, if he had a meltdown the day before, it wasn’t held against him. They loved him just the way he was.” That “light” came from feeling wanted and needed, as well as having social opportunities with other people at work, his mother explains.

Deck says transportation is a gaping need for adults who are on the spectrum. Some individuals cannot drive, due to not having a driver’s license, anxiety or spatial awareness issues. And Deck says Buncombe County’s Mountain Mobility services aren’t available in the part of the county where she lives except for doctor appointments. That means adults like Foster have to rely on a parent or sibling to transport them to and from all social outings.

“When you’re planning something or you want to connect people, that’s something you’ve got to think about — how are they going to get there?” Deck says.

‘Make things more accessible’

Blalock found social niches — crafting, motherhood — with other women who are neurodivergent. However, social needs for people who are neurodivergent vary based on age and other factors. LePage says it’s not enough to provide activities centered around autism, because having autism in common doesn’t mean people’s interests are similar.

He says the better questions to ask about social activities, particularly in public spaces, are “how do we make other things more accessible? How do we make other things more friendly to someone who thinks or processes information differently?” For example, the western chapter of Autism Society of N.C. hosts a weekly walking group in French Broad River Park. It’s intentionally open to everyone — not only people on the spectrum, LePage explains.

Many businesses and people will be accommodating to a person with sensory-processing needs when asked to adjust overhead lighting, find quiet seating in restaurants or lower noise, says LePage. He sees some establishments increasingly “being comfortable getting that feedback [of] ‘Hey, can you turn the speaker down, because it’s overwhelming the system right now?”

LePage credits the acceptance of these accommodations by the general public to self-advocacy within the autism acceptance movement and disability rights movement. (He notes that he does not have a diagnosis of autism himself.) “Asheville is a great place for [asking for accommodations],” LePage says. “I’ve seen so many times where that compassion to other people has been extended.”


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About Jessica Wakeman
Jessica Wakeman is an Asheville-based reporter for Mountain Xpress. She has been published in Rolling Stone, Glamour, New York magazine's The Cut, Bustle and many other publications. She was raised in Connecticut and holds a Bachelor's degree in journalism from New York University. Follow me @jessicawakeman

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