By Thomas F. Hassell
Thomas Hassell is a board member for United for Autism and holds many volunteer roles in and out of the autism community. Here, he shares his experience with friendship and the loss of his dear friend, Moureen Sweeney.
May 19, 2021
This past Saturday, May 15, 2021, started off as any other normal Saturday. I was doing a load of laundry then came the call that anybody dreads. It was a call from my friend Christine Martinelli, another very close friend that I went to College Misericordia with. She called me with the sorrowful news that our friend, Moureen Sweeney, had passed away quite suddenly.
Now what does this have to do with autism? Let me start from the beginning. I was a student with a learning disability and College Misericordia had a special program for those with learning disabilities called the “Alternative Learners Program” under Dr. Joseph Rogan. In this program, you started out in the program taking a couple of courses in the summer and then come back in the fall to continue college life as a student, taking at least 3 or 4 fall courses. You had a guidance counselor you would see each week and each class you had note takers and untimed tests. Other than that, students experienced a four-year college life of sports, parties, and religious life. Because the school was formed by catholic nuns, students would attend services on campus at the church. On Christmas Eve, there was a special service which a majority of students would attend each year.
Now, this is where the intersection of college life and the beginning of a wonderful friendship of over 20 years began. One day at lunch I was sitting alone in the school cafeteria eating lunch. Moureen Sweeney, Christine Martinelli, and Christine Hrysecko Perella saw me having lunch alone and came over and sat with me and they introduced themselves to me. From that point on we became the best of friends. Today, we have been friends for over 20 years and our friendship is still as strong as ever.
What is friendship, anyway? We, as humans, crave having a close friendship with each other. I believe friendship is a close relationship with another person who you both have a mutual respect and admiration for. People with autism might not have the social cues to be able to make friends easily. They may, to some, act differently and may be treated differently because of their disability. Where, then, can a person with autism go to make friends if they are developmentally challenged?
Some friendships can occur naturally, for example, your close neighbor you see every day. You can enjoy each other’s company and do things together. Other friendships can develop in school, like mine did. There are also school clubs that one can make friends at like a chess club, science club, and drama club etc. You can also develop a friendship if you share the same interests, like sports and sports games.
A number of years ago a school student came up with an idea at his school to have a friendship bench put on a playground. It was called a friendship bench because if a student was sitting alone on that bench and was seen by others someone would be able to sit with that lonely student to make friends with them. I also heard a story about a young student who was eating his lunch alone and a star athlete came over and sat down next to that student and had lunch with him. When the student’s mother heard about the act of kindness for her son, she wrote a letter of thanks to the athlete.
Another way you can find friends, as an adult with autism, is through support groups. There are adult support groups that you can join to find help and support. I run one such support group in Pennsylvania called “spectrum friends’ for adults 18 years old and up. I hope this story gives hope to those with disabilities of all types and gives ideas on where to go to find friends.
Now, I have had over 20 years of friendship between myself and my college friends. For us, our friendship is still going strong. We had planned to hold a get together sometime in late August or early September. I still do not know what type of celebration we will plan in Moureen’s memory, but I am sure it will be a spectacular event. I will miss her looking out for me whenever they all came to visit me. She would always check all my medical equipment making sure it was clean and safe. In closing, here’s to my friend Moureen, may God find a place for you in his kingdom, and I will miss you dearly.