REVEL is a local organization for teens and young adults “on and off the autism spectrum” that aims to bring this community together. They create space for individuals to interact, learn, work and share common interests through their events and programming. Stephanie Engels, REVEL’s Executive Director, explained autism as a “developmental and neurological disorder related to brain development. It’s defined by significant impairment in social communication and restrictive, repetitive interests, behaviors and/or activities.” She added that autism isn’t curable, and that “individuals on the autism spectrum are affected in many ways and may require lifelong support.”
Because of this need for support, REVEL aims to provide a “bridge to adulthood” for those on the spectrum. “Once individuals turn 21 years old, they age out of school-based services resulting in a dramatic decrease in available funding for services and support,” explained Engels. According to a 2020 study, autism spectrum disorder affects 1 out of 54 children.
In the next 10 years, “over half a million people on the autism spectrum will become adults and age out of school-based autism services,” added Engels. “Without lifelong, ongoing support, individuals with autism will regress in skill development and will be less likely to live independently, work or become active members of their community resulting in taxpayers becoming responsible for providing financial support.” REVEL aims to provide the tools to bridge the gap during this transition with resources and support.
REVEL in Art
This spring, they held their first annual (virtual) art auction to support Colorado artists and raise money for their cause, in partnership with Redline Contemporary Studio, a local nonprofit. REVEL in Art was constructed as a hybrid event, with in-person, limited capacity walk-throughs and online viewings available. The auction is just one of the programs that the organization runs to strive towards their mission to provide the bridge to adulthood.
“Art is an avenue to express yourself in various ways and each piece of art tells a story and is interpreted differently,” said Engels of their choice to use an art auction as the fundraiser. “There’s a saying, ‘If you’ve met one person with autism, then you’ve met one person with autism,'” she added. “Similarly to art, each person with autism has their own story.” With the funds raised at the auction, they’re now able to purchase “equipment to teach employment skills such as computers, laptops, film editing software, 3D printers and virtual reality sets,” as well as providing scholarships for people in need.
Working to Adjust
REVEL’s work has been especially cut out for them during the pandemic, as they try to combat the mental and emotional symptoms resulting from isolation and social distancing. “We are so blessed to be back in person now and continue to follow CDC guidelines and have put even more emphasis on health and safety protocols,” said Ashley McDonald, REVEL’s Program Supervisor.
Like most organizations and businesses who weren’t planning on going virtual, they’ve had to adapt during the shutdowns. For a demographic that thrives on in-person contact and promotes socialization, the impact has been even greater. “The pandemic hit our community hard, and like most, we did our best to go virtual,” said McDonald. “Social isolation and depression are something we were fighting before the pandemic and something we have continued to fight against.” Their website reports that 1 in 4 teens and adults on the autism spectrum “have been completely isolated—meaning they have not seen or spoken to friends in the past year.”
A Range of Programming
REVEL in Art is new, but the organization has been implementing other programs for the community since starting in 2016. These run all year—regardless of summer hours. Some of those programs include “Gear Up,” “Social Lounge,” one-on-one behavioral support and a mentorship program. “Mentors are the heart of the community,” said McDonald. “REVEL’s comprehensive mentor program encourages teens and young adults to foster mutually beneficial, meaningful friendships with individuals with autism and related disorders while learning valuable, applicable life skills,” she added.
The REVEL Lounge is another new program this summer that aims to provide opportunities to “make friends, have some fun and revel in the beauty of all that Colorado has to offer.” The Lounge runs on Thursdays from 4-6 p.m. through the end of July. They “have a theme, include various partnering organizations in our community and provide authentic opportunities for our REVELers to socialize and revel in life,” said McDonald.
Focusing on Teens and Young Adults
McDonald says that there’s a decent amount of support and awareness of autism in Colorado, though it’s generally focused on young children. The National Institute for Child Health and Development reports that it’s possible for children on the autism spectrum who receive intervention at a very young age to “make so much progress that they are no longer on the autism spectrum when they are older.” They’re also more likely to have a higher IQ and better motor and language skills than children who aren’t treated early. REVEL aims to fill the space for teens and young adults who are looking for an inclusive community. “Early intervention is incredibly important,” she says, but “the services and supports dramatically drop off once people become young adults.” For her, the work is incredibly rewarding. “I can honestly say that I look forward to going to work there every day!” she said.
All photographs courtesy of REVEL staff members.