MINNEAPOLIS – It’s just after 5 p.m. and a small excited group arrives at Dogwood’s Cafe in St. Paul.
People come in, grab a sticker, and find a place to sit. Some order a coffee (this is a coffee shop after all), but a cup of coffee is secondary to most who arrive. They have come to hang out and socialize.
For adults in the neurodivergent community, the gatherings are part of the Autism Society of Minnesota (AuSM) initiative to bring people together in an inclusive social environment.
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The meeting is held twice a month at Dogwood (every other Tuesday) and monthly (Mondays) at Milkweed Café in Minneapolis.
“From my experience hosting, it seems to be a pretty regular group,” said Mitchell Schaps, who has attended and organized events at Milkweed. “These coffee club events are some of the most neuro-affirming social events held in the Twin Cities. “They are some of the most welcoming I have seen to the neurodivergent population in the state.”
The idea for the AuSM Coffee Club emerged in late 2022 and began at the St. Paul location in January 2023. The goal was simple: provide a safe, socially supported space for adults on the autism spectrum to meet and establish relationships.
AuSM provides a host who checks in, monitors interactions, and can help with orders. Attendees may also bring a personal care assistant if needed.
“It became instantly popular,” said Daren Howard, deputy director of AuSM.
Howard said attendees have a wide range of needs and support backgrounds. His last visit was attended by two doctoral students, a researcher and another who works as a clinical psychologist. Providing an atmosphere that accommodates a variety of needs has been essential to the club’s success.
“AuSM works hard to deliver accessible and inclusive events,” she said. “This includes modes of accessibility that people often think of, such as wheelchair access. But the access needs of the autism community are a little different. “Autistic people benefit from sensory-sensitive lighting, quieter places, space to fidget and move, and social narratives.”
Autism support groups, like many other similar groups, migrated online during the pandemic and remained there after safety guidelines were relaxed. The Coffee Club is part of AuSM’s organizational mission to build community and strengthen social development.
Other social activities include skills workshops and even improv comedy classes. The Coffee Club has consistently attracted up to 30 meeting participants and built a loyal membership.
“This is something that can be extremely difficult for the neurodivergent population,” said Schaps, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). “These events made them feel comfortable.”
A mixture of AuSM
The partnership that began in 2022 led to Dogwood offering an AuSM blend in cafes and online throughout November as part of the roaster’s Coffee for Others program. The initiative highlights a Twin Cities nonprofit and all proceeds from the featured barbecue are donated to the group.
“We typically make an average donation of about $2,500 to our partners, but sometimes the donation is larger if the match is very successful,” said Iesha Alspaugh, Dogwood’s director of community and outreach. “The response is different each time, but I think we are continually surprised by how the Dogwood community and the partner organization community show up to support the combination.”
The AuSM blend was a combination of Ethiopian and Mexican coffees and was available in 12-ounce, 2-pound, and 5-pound bags. AuSM staff members visited the Dogwood roasting facility for a tasting to help them create the blend.
“It’s not a perfectly fine-tuned process or an exact science,” Alspaugh said, “but it has given us the opportunity to meet some really wonderful people and build relationships with people who are doing incredible work in the community.”
Dogwood’s January collaboration is with Chops Inc., a Minneapolis-based marching arts body that offers music education and performing arts programs.
How does it work
AuSM has a representative, or concierge, who attends meetings to make things easier. Attendees are asked to wear a traffic light sticker to indicate to others their comfort level with engaging others: green when interested in interacting, yellow when interested only in people the user is familiar with and red when they are not interested in interactions at the moment. There are also friendship cards available to exchange contact information.
For some attendees, it’s about making connections, playing cards and board games, or sharing other activities. Others prefer a personal activity with a book or coloring pages. For those people it’s about a sense of community in a safe space.
AuSM prepares members who plan to attend with a social story (a common device in the autism community) that is available online. It describes how club meetings are run, behavioral expectations, what the surrounding area is like, and includes maps and transportation guidance.
“The idea behind social narrative is no different than when a neurotypical person looks at a menu before visiting a restaurant,” Howard said. “It provides an idea of what to expect from the experience.”
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