Senior hopes to continue neurodiversity program


Photo courtesy of Sophie Thurschwell

Ethan Leifman

April is Autism Awareness Month, and that means recently you’ve likely seen something like a donation box for an organization, or maybe a picture of lots of people wearing blue. But for many neurotypical people, especially those who aren’t close with people on the Autism spectrum, the concept of neurodiversity doesn’t pop up often in daily life. Senior Sophie Thurchwell is not one of those people. Thurschwell’s brother Walter has autism, which inspired Thurschwell and her mother to start DC Peers, an independently functioning organization licensed to use the curriculum of the national organization Peers, which is focused on building relationships between neurotypical people and people with high-functioning autism.

Thurschwell, who is the branch’s cofounder, recruiter, and social facilitator, has gotten many Wilson students to join the program, though that group is “mostly friends from theater.” Every other Sunday, the group meets, with the primary focus being teaching neurodivergent participants how to feel socially comfortable in a world that can often seem hostile to those with autism. The program touches on every aspect of social interaction, from shaking hands to Snapchat etiquette. “DC Peers teaches a formula for each social skill that most neurotypical kids are able to naturally pick up on,” Thurschwell said.

The neurodivergent members of the program don’t just learn social skills—they practice them too. Once a month, the program holds social events in safe spaces where the neurodivergent kids can “put into place” the skills they learned in class. The neurotypical kids as well as some adult social facilitators attend. Frequently-rented locations include Comet Pizza, Jake’s American Grill, and local bowling alleys.

Running the program can be very complicated, from managing donations that keep the program free to renting out spaces. In order to become qualified for the program, Thurshwell and her mother attended a course on neurodiversity at The College of William and Mary, and now apply the skills they learned in that class to DC Peers.

Thurshwell stressed that DC Peers was not in any way created as a response to Wilson’s Best Buddies program, a program with the same general concept, just one that attracts more lower-functioning neurodivergent kids. “I think Best Buddies is awesome!” Thurshwell said enthusiastically. “DC Peers is different than Best Buddies because it’s explicitly not just spending time together.”

Though Thurschwell will be going to college next year and will obviously not be able to do as much for DC Peers as she is currently doing, she still wants the program to expand. Thurschwell said that a misconception about childhood neurodivergence is that it only affects privileged white people, where in reality, neurodivergence does not discriminate. The sad reality is that often, only privileged people have the resources available to adequately address the issue. It makes sense to Thurschwell that the free program should be expanded to children “outside of Upper Northwest DC.”

If you are interested in joining DC Peers, you can contact at them [email protected]—or just catch Thurschwell in the halls.