April 16, 2024

Changing Hearts, Minds and Attitudes About Autism with Good Friend, Inc.

Author Kathryn Kochanowicz, Content Specialist

“Have you ever encountered something that isn’t happening anywhere else but right here?”

Not many nonprofit professionals could open a conversation with potential supporters like that—but Allison Katula can.

Good Friend, Inc., for which Katula serves as executive director, embodies a unique approach in the autism advocacy and education space, as providing direct services is not the focus of their mission. “We’re strictly about educating what we call the neuro-majority, or those without brain-based differences, about autism in an accurate and strengths-based way, so they can grow some acceptance and empathy that actually leads to culture change.”

Wisconsin-based Good Friend works from the idea that if the neuro-majority better understood autism and neurodiversity, many of the difficulties autistic and neurodiverse people face throughout their lives could be alleviated. “Autism is a non-apparent disability in many ways, and since autism has a strong communication difference embedded into its core, people struggle to engage,” Katula explains, adding, “Kids struggle to make friends, and adults struggle to get work. That’s why we go straight to the people who are neurotypical, or the neuro-majority, to help them to understand autism and neurodiversity.”

Founded in 2007 by two mothers of autistic children who saw an unfulfilled need, Good Friend began by working in the classroom. “At least two-thirds of all children on the spectrum report that they have been bullied,” she says, adding that “healthy peer relationships stop bullying in its tracks, so by giving [neurotypical] kids the tools to step in and be an ‘upstander’ instead of standing by, we’re helping to build cultures where people can be their authentic self, bringing their skills and talents to the table.”

Today, Good Friend offers a plethora of programs to broaden acceptance and deepening understanding of autism among the neurotypical community holistically. In addition to in-person programs like peer sensitivity workshops, individualized classroom presentations, staff in-services and sibling workshops, they also provide online resources. Aimed at elementary and middle school-aged students, Good Friend Academy houses digital versions of in-person courses, allowing educators nationwide to access these invaluable resources.

The nonprofit is developing a new vein of programming that goes beyond the scholastic with Neurodiversity at Work. Because the same lack of understanding and empathy towards autistic people found in schools is also often found in the workplace, many autistic and neurodivergent people face an uphill battle when seeking employment, and there are yet more obstacles placed in their way once they have secured employment.

“Up to 75% of autistic adults are either unemployed or underemployed, meaning they have the educational background, or they have the technical skills, but they can’t get a job in their chosen field,” says Katula. Neurodiversity at Work’s programming aims to educate employers and fellow employees on attracting, hiring, retaining and supporting neurodivergent employees. She poses the question: “Why do these have to be accommodations for people who have disclosed a disability, as opposed to looking at what benefits us all as individual human beings so everyone can bring their best self to work?”

For Good Friend to bring these programs to fruition, consistent, unrestricted grantmaking enables nonprofits like theirs to increase capacity to meet the needs of the community. Donor-advised funds play an integral role in this. “I think people using donor-advised funds are so important in our future because they are dedicated to a cause,” says Katula, adding, “They have actively decided to engage in philanthropy, and philanthropy is a strategy; these are people who are extremely intentional.”

About the Author

Kathryn Lena Kochanowicz is a Content Specialist at National Philanthropic Trust. She graduated from Gettysburg College with a degree in English Literature & Creative Writing, and currently resides in Hatboro, PA.