Bay Area Autism Collective creates autism-affirming community spaces

ByLia Mimun Localish logo
Wednesday, May 8, 2024
Autism Advocate Bird Sellergren creates uplifting community spaces
Bay Area Autism Collective (BAAC) is a nonprofit dedicated to providing peer support groups led exclusively by autistic people for autistic people.

SAN FRANCISCO -- Today, the word "unmasking" evokes memories of lifted lockdowns and retired mandates. But for Bay Area Autism Collective founder Bird Sellergren, the concept of unmasking had a profound meaning long before the pandemic.

"Masking is the act of making yourself seem less autistic to be more appealing to other people," Bird explained, "which is inevitably an exhausting, taxing process."

Bird, who describes themself as an autistic self-advocate, emphasized the mental health benefits of unmasking: "research studies have shown that when people can unmask, their mental health improves. Providing space for that to happen is critical."

When Bird struggled to find a comfortable, autistic-led space to unmask in the Bay Area, they decided to create one. Last spring, Bird founded the Bay Area Autism Collective, a nonprofit dedicated to providing peer support groups led exclusively by autistic people for autistic people.

Currently, BAAC hosts four identity-based social groups, including groups for parents and people recovering from addiction.

"It started really small, and we didn't have any funding for like six months, just running on a shoestring," Bird recalled. Today, a little over a year after its founding, BAAC serves 160 people a month.

"I didn't realize it was going to be as powerful as it is," Bird admitted.

V Tisi, a BAAC group facilitator and executive board member, echoed Bird's comments on the power of unmasking. She expressed frustration with available autism services focused on 'curing' autism or training autistic adults to pass as neurotypical.

"For those of us who have nothing to 'cure' because we enjoy being our authentic, autistic self... we're trying to unmask to free ourselves," Tisi explained.

Drawing on her experience as a speech pathologist for children, Tisi brought up the lack of resources available for adults with autism. She explained that while public schools are federally mandated to provide services for children with autism, for adults, "there was nothing out there for us....(BAAC) is something I wish existed a long time ago."

In contrast to other services for autistic adults, Bay Area Autism Collective prides themselves on being a group by and for autistic people.

When asked what makes BAAC unique, Bird said, "I'm autistic. Our leadership is autistic. The people facilitating the groups are autistic... and that authenticity is really important because we know best what we need and we're able to provide each other services that are far more suited for us."

After a year of remarkable growth, BAAC's board is looking to the future.

"What we really need to keep growing and operating to meet the needs that we are finding is donations," Bird explained. They emphasized the overwhelming demand for BAAC's services, adding, "donations help keep us afloat, but also ensure we can grow."

To learn more and support Bay Area Autism Collective, visit here.