Kimberly Mahady and Andrea Magnell met in the office of an occupational therapist in 2015 while they were waiting for their children, Mahady’s daughter, Chloe, and Magnell’s son, Trenton — both of whom are on the autism spectrum — to finish their appointments. Realizing they had a lot in common, the women quickly became friends.
They set up playdates so Chloe and Trenton, both of whom are now 8, and Magnell’s daughter, Layla, who is now 5 and does not have autism, could spend some time together. But the two moms soon realized that, outside of their homes, there weren’t many places they could go where they felt comfortable, where they didn’t feel like other parents were judging them because of their autistic children’s behavior.
“There’s a lot of isolation,” says Mahady, 46, who lives in Haverhill. “Most of the time, you don’t want to go out. It takes a lot to find other families who have kids with autism, who understand what your life is like.”
So in 2016, Mahady and Magnell, a Lowell resident who is now 36, decided to start an organization that could support the needs of parents with autistic children.
“We wanted to create something that would help parents help themselves and each other,” Mahady says. “There are so many resources and services for kids, but not so much for parents.”
TLC Autism Parent Community (TLC standing for “thrive,” “learn,” “connect,” as well representing the initials of Mahady’s and Magnell’s children) was born.
But without much business experience, the women decided they needed some help. They applied to join the 2018 Business Accelerator program at Lowell-based Entrepreneurship for All and were accepted.
“We took classes, interviewed parents and formed small focus groups,” Mahady says. “We didn’t know how parents needed to be supported.”
They learned that most parents with autistic children feel isolated and worry about their parenting skills, especially when they also have non-autistic children and need to switch back and forth between parenting styles.
“People talked and talked,” Mahady says. “It was like no one had ever asked them about their needs before.”
Mahady, who is now running TLC Autism Parent Community without Magnell, held the organization’s first official support group meeting in March. Since then, monthly gatherings have taken place on Sundays at Dinah’s House, a Haverhill nonprofit that donates the use of its space. In order to provide some structure, each meeting has a topic and some questions for parents to answer. Mahady also established a private Facebook page to help get out the word about meetings.
TLC’s July meeting featured its first guest speaker, a therapist who talked to parents about Applied Behavior Analysis, or ABA, therapy programs. ABA therapies look at biological and environmental factors that can influence behavior, and use a variety of techniques to bring about positive changes in the behavior of people with autism.
Mahady is looking to add an additional monthly meeting on Friday mornings beginning this fall. She also wants to start a separate support group in Lowell, where she feels there would be a lot of interest.
“I’m working toward making TLC into a nonprofit,” Mahady says. “I want to build programs that we can hand off to other groups in other cities, and create events where parents can get together socially. I want this to be an organization that comes from a place of understanding that’s positive and judgment-free.”
To help support the organization’s future plans, Mahady is putting together a fundraiser for sometime in November. Visit the organization’s website for more information.
TLC Autism Parent Community