Several years ago I attended a group for people with invisible disabilities. While not all of the members had Asperger’s, at least two others did, besides me, of course. When the group folded, one of the Aspie members, who had saved our e-mails, contacted me to invite me to a group he ran called the Asperger Meetup Group, run through the website Meetup.com. Meetup is a site where you can find groups formed around a common interest, or start your own.
I attended the first meeting with some nervousness, but I needn’t have worried. I was among my own people. Chris D., the fellow who ran the group, had told me how to find them, and once I did so I was completely comfortable with everyone in the group. We met at the local White Spot restaurant. This was in 2005.
Unfortunately, Meetup started charging a fee not long after. Chris couldn’t afford the fee on his disability pension, and he didn’t have a credit card, so the group had to disband. I tried to restart it and run it through Yahoo Groups, but Yahoo just didn’t have the tools that Meetup had. Still, I was determined to keep the group going somehow, because I enjoyed it and I knew other people did too.
Then one day I received a credit card offer in the mail. I didn’t think I qualified for any credit cards, but I figured it wouldn’t hurt anything to fill out the application and send it in. I did so, and to my surprise I received a credit card in the mail. I immediately used the card to restart the group on the Meetup site.
The reason I use the Meetup site, even though it costs me nearly $150 a year, is that it gives me all the tools I need to run the group. It keeps track of how many people RSVP to every meeting. It provides me with an e-mail list so that I can contact the group members without having to remember all their e-mail addresses. It also allows me to contact members individually, and it allows them to contact me. I can use the site to provide information about the group, where we’re meeting, and what the ground rules are (if any.) There is a discussion board as well. Also, group members can suggest their own ideas for meetings. The site provides me with pre-printed flyers, with tear-off tabs, that I can post to promote the group, and signs I can print out to put on the table in the restaurant where we meet to help new people locate us when they come in. I can add tags to the group description on the website to help people find us if they’re looking for groups about autism, asperger’s, autism spectrum disorder, etc.
So I was now in charge of the Victoria Asperger Meetup Group. For awhile, this was enough. I didn’t have to do anything other than make a reservation at White Spot once a month. Before long, though, I realized that not very many people were attending the meets, especially in the summer. For two or three years in a row I cancelled the meetings in July and August when I received no RSVPs.
I wanted to attract more people to the group, so I started placing announcements in local free papers — Monday magazine and the Coffee News. Membership started to pick up.
In 2008 a reporter for the Victoria Times-Colonist contacted me through the Meetup site. She had been thinking about doing a story about Meetup.com, and when she looked through the various groups that met in the Victoria area she found the Asperger group and wanted to learn more, not just about the group but about Asperger’s in general. It happened that the newspaper offices were in the same building where I was attending school, so it was easy to set up a meeting with the reporter. We talked for a couple of hours, and then she attended one of our meetings.
The newspaper story, titled “Aspies Find Fun Together,” was published at the end of October You can see it here: http://www.canada.com/victoriatimescolonist/news/life/story.html?id=b84444ce-68c7-43a9-aaad-d0079fb1b7b9&p=1 Soon my INBOX was filling up with messages from people who wanted to join the group. By the time the November meeting rolled around I had 25 RSVPs. Unfortunately I had put off making the restaurant reservation till the last minute because every time I thought I knew how many people were coming, more people sent in their RSVPs, so the restaurant staff were not very happy with me. I believe this may have been why they suddenly started to refuse to give me reservations for the monthly meetings. Every time I asked for a reservation they were conveniently all booked up for that night.
People have asked why I hold the meetings at a restaurant. There are a couple of reasons. The most simple one is that I usually go to the meetings immediately after I finish work, it’s suppertime, and I’m hungry. The other reason is that it gives people something to do. If people are eating, then they don’t have to sit around and stare at each other while wondering what to say. If a person has trouble coming up with something to talk about, he or she can just use the excuse “I’m eating, so I can’t talk right now.”
Since White Spot stopped giving us reservations we’ve met at a few different places, including pubs and other restaurants. For a while we met at a restaurant that had a meeting room we were able to use, but sadly that restaurant closed down, and I haven’t been able to find another one that has meeting rooms. There are a couple of pubs that have areas set off that are like meeting rooms, but pubs are noisy places and the food isn’t usually very good.
We now meet more than once a month. For years the meetings were monthly, but one member suggested having a mid-month “coffee” meet (rather than dinner) and that’s become a regular event.
Besides the dinner and coffee meets, we have also had meetings for going to movies, going for picnics at parks, and going to the haunted house at Halloween. Last fall four of us went on an “Aspie Road Trip” to the ANCA Naturally Autistic Awards and Convention.
I still do my best to promote the group, and our meetings now have at least 15 people each. We were featured on TV on Superbowl Sunday (unfortunately, at the same time as the half-time show, so I don’t know if many people saw us), and I’ve been on a couple of radio shows to talk about the group. I post online on Craigslist and Kijiji as well as in the local free papers.
If you want to run your own Aspie group and can’t afford Meetup.com, I suggest the following.
Decide on a day, time and place you want to meet. Then start looking for places to advertise. Craigslist.com and Kijiji.ca are good places. Contact the local papers; they often have calendars that you can submit events to. Create some flyers and ask to post one at your local library — all the branches, if you can — and local businesses. If there are any organizations for persons with disabilities in your town, ask if they can help spread the word. If your ISP provides web space, get yourself a book on basic HTML, or a web-page creation program, and make a website for your group. Talk up the meeting with everyone you know; you’ll be surprised at how many people have a friend or a family member who has Asperger’s or another autism spectrum disorder.
Be organized. Create an e-mail list for your group, but also save everyone’s e-mail address separately. Create a list of group members with names and contact information so that you know how to contact each person individually. It might also be helpful to include a brief description of the person, in case you’re like me and have trouble remembering names.
Decide how your meeting will be structured. Mine is very informal. We don’t have any kind of check-in or agenda, but many Aspies prefer something with more structure. Whatever you choose, be sure to inform people so that they’re not surprised by either the structure or lack of it.
It’s also helpful if you have someone you can “deputize” to conduct the meetings if you can’t be there or are delayed in getting there.