This guest Q&A is with Good Friend Inc.’s very own Chelsea Budde and Denise Schamens.  Good Friend, Inc., based in Waukesha, Wis., is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization founded in 2007 to create autism awareness, teach acceptance of differences, and foster empathy for students with autism spectrum disorder among their typically-developing peers. GFI’s original short films and proprietary curriculum for K-8th grade students and educators have enabled co-founders Chelsea Budde and Denise Schamens to reach more than 40,000 people directly.

Chelsea Budde’s two children, now teenagers, inspired her to co-found Good Friend, Inc., through which she enjoys presenting to audiences from Kindergarten to graduate school. When she’s not driving her busy teens around their Waukesha, Wis., home, she might be found helping at her church or spending time with her husband of 22 years, Pete.

Denise Schamens has produced, directed and edited 3 films and will soon be starting the 4th. When she isn’t presenting and lecturing for Good Friend, Inc. she is flipping houses and managing her 2 young adult sons and teenage daughter’s schedules.

Hi Chelsea and Denise! How did the idea of Good Friend Inc. come about? 

Chelsea & Denise: We have sons nearly the same age on the spectrum, and they attended Early Childhood classes in the same Waukesha, Wis., school. Denise was a volunteer special education family engagement liaison through the district, and hosted a monthly information network. As such, she heard repeatedly how few friends students on the spectrum had at school. Denise noticed Chelsea brought a binder of resources to the monthly meetings, and thought she might be resourceful enough to help put together a peer sensitivity film for elementary school students. Chelsea liked the idea so much that they co-created GFI as a nonprofit, developed a curriculum, and released their first film by the end of that year (2007).

How are your kids doing today?

Chelsea: Both of my children are on the spectrum and have other co-existing conditions. I could not have guessed when they were diagnosed in preschool, especially given the information I was, that they would grow into such amazing humans! My son just graduated high school with honors, started his first job, is registered for a community college class, and will attend a Transition program through our school district in the fall. My daughter’s autism has gifted her with perfect pitch, which makes her a musical dynamo! She’s got a great soprano singing voice, and plays cello, guitar, alto saxophone, and ukulele. She’ll start piano lessons this fall. She’s taking advanced courses in high school, and hopes to be a music teacher some day.

Denise: My middle son Sam in on the spectrum. Soon to be 19, he is fully participating in our district’s 18-21 program. He is also attending a private vocational college 2 days a week. He is working on his communication skills through RPM (Rapid prompt method) using a letter board to broaden his verbal ability. Regulation and controlling some of the more difficult parts of his autism has been challenging and he is doing an excellent job! We have set some strong goals for him, and everyday he seems to get one step closer to independence! We are blessed by his good nature and sense of humor! He is a “light” in our house!

What is a misconception out there today in our autism community that you would like to see debunked?

Denise: It is too costly and difficult to train and coach individuals on the spectrum.

Chelsea: That there are five times more males than females on the spectrum.

Your team have hosted some amazing initiatives since you were first founded. Any favorites from the bunch?

Hawthorne assembly

Chelsea: I think our Peer Sensitivity Workshops are nothing short of magical. Not only do they help create connections, but they also help create self-advocates! When we return to schools annually, students on the spectrum often become so familiar with the language of the presentations, which their classmates now understand, that they’re better able to verbalize their strengths and supports. They become the experts!

Denise: I totally agree with Chelsea on our workshops! What’s even more impressive to me is when the school has taken our language and message and have made it their whole school culture! They see the benefit of GFI returning to ensure that message stays true! Setting up a culture of acceptance in education is the best support for our programs that we could ever hope for!

We love your resource page on your website. Many of them we often share when we go out to speak in the community. Is there an autism resource out there that you would recommend to parents of newly diagnosed children with autism?

Denise: Local Autism chapters are the best place to start in my opinion. Also, find a forum of parents to chat with and bounce concerns and ideas off of.

Chelsea: As we don’t provide any direct services to families of children with autism, we leave the resource recommendations to our local Autism Society chapter. Nationally, I think Sesame Workshop is doing a great job of talking about autism with young children!

Any final message you’d like to share?

Chelsea: I want to encourage all stakeholders — parents, siblings, teachers, care providers, case managers, therapists, etc. — to have dreams and expectations for their young people on the spectrum as open-ended as they would for any child. I have learned far more about “resting” the bar instead of “setting” the bar as I’ve watched my children rise above “the statistics” time and time again.

Denise: As I agree completely with Chelsea’s “resting” the bar, I would also like to share that your family, however that may look is unique. Don’t measure yourself on what traditionally has been the “norm.” Focus on strengths, goal setting and happiness. Remember the “Super-sibs” that are traveling this road with you and include them in on discussions and decisions as they mature with their sibling. Take one day at a time and celebrate all the achievements, big and small!

Editor’s note: “It’s amazing when you find passionate people out there in our community who want to go above and beyond for our loved ones. Knowing people like Chelsea and Denise are out there supporting the cause makes me hopeful for the future of our community. I’d highly recommend supporting their team and all the work they continue you do.” – Kerry Magro