MINNEAPOLIS — It’s just past 5 p.m., and a small, excited group pours into Dogwood’s cafe in St. Paul.

Folks file in, grab a sticker and find a place to sit down. Some order a coffee — this is, after all, a coffee shop — but a cup of Joe is secondary for most who arrive. They’ve come to hang out and socialize.

For adults in the neurodivergent community, the gatherings are part of the Autism Society of Minnesota’s (AuSM) initiative to bring together individuals in an inclusive social setting.

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The gathering happens twice a month at Dogwood (every other Tuesday) and monthly (Mondays) at Milkweed Café in Minneapolis.

“From my experience hosting, it appears to be a pretty regular group,” said Mitchell Schaps, who has attended and hosted events at Milkweed. “These coffee club events are some of the most neuro-affirming social events that are hosted in the Twin Cities. They are some of the most welcoming I have seen for the neurodivergent population in the state.”

The AuSM Coffee Club idea was hatched in late 2022 and started at the St. Paul location in January 2023. The goal was simple — provide a safe space, with social supports for adults on the autism spectrum to meet up and build relationships.

AuSM provides a host, who runs check-in, oversees the interactions and can help with ordering. Attendees can also bring along a personal care assistant if needed.

“It was instantly popular,” said Daren Howard, AuSM’s deputy director.

Howard said attendees have a wide range of support needs and backgrounds. Two doctoral candidates attended his last visit, a researcher and another pursing a role as a clinical psychologist. Providing an atmosphere that accommodates a range of needs has been essential to the club’s success.

“AuSM works hard to provide accessible and inclusive events,” he said. “This includes modes of accessibility people usually think of, like wheelchair access. But the autism community’s access needs are a little different. Autistic people benefit from sensory-sensitive lighting, quieter venues, room to fidget and stir and social narratives.”

Support groups for individuals with autism, like many other similar groups, migrated online during the pandemic and stayed there after safety guidelines loosened. The Coffee Club is part of AuSM’s organizational mission to build community and strengthen social development.

Other social activities include skill workshops, and even improvisational comedy classes. The Coffee Club has consistently drawn up to 30 participants at gatherings and built a loyal membership.

“This is something that for the neurodivergent population can be extremely difficult,” said Schaps, who has attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). “These events made them feel comfortable.”

An AuSM blend

The partnership that began in 2022 led to Dogwood offering an AuSM blend at cafes and online throughout November as part of the roaster’s Coffee for Others program. The initiative spotlights a Twin Cities nonprofit or organization with all profits from the featured roast donated to the group.

“We typically average around a $2,500 donation to our partners, but sometimes the donation is larger if the blend is very successful,” said Iesha Alspaugh, Dogwood’s director of community and outreach. “The response is different each time, but I think we’re continually surprised by how Dogwood’s community and the partnering organization’s community show up to support the blend.”

The AuSM blend was a combination of Ethiopian and Mexican coffees and was available in 12-ounce, 2-pound and 5-pound bags. AuSM staff members visited Dogwood’s roasting facility for a tasting to help create the blend.

“It’s not a finely tuned process or an exact science,” Alspaugh said, “but it’s given us the opportunity to meet some really wonderful people and form relationships with people who are doing incredible work in the community.”

Dogwood’s collaboration in January is with Chops Inc., a marching-arts corps based in Minneapolis that offers music education and performing arts programs.

How it works

AuSM has a representative, or concierge, attend the meetings to facilitate things. Attendees are asked to wear a stoplight sticker to tell others their comfort level with engaging others: green when interested in interacting, yellow when interested only with individuals the wearer is familiar with and red when not interested in interactions at this time. Friendship cards also are available to exchange contact information.

For some attendees, it’s all about making connections, playing cards and board games, or bringing other activities to share. Others prefer a personal activity with a book or coloring pages. For those individuals it’s about a sense of community in a safe space.

AuSM prepares members who plan to attend with a social story — a common device in the autism community — that is available online. It outlines how club meetings are conducted, expectations for conduct, what the surroundings look like and includes maps and guidance on transportation.

“The idea behind the social narrative is not unlike when a neurotypical person looks at a menu before visiting a restaurant,” Howard said. “It provides some insight into what to expect from the experience.”

© 2024 Star Tribune
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