facebook pixel Skip to Main Content
Idaho State University home

ISU Graduate Students Establish Neurodivergent Social Support Group for Adults in Pocatello

May 30, 2024

Joules Emerson and Julia Duran with a dog next to the bronze Bengal

Two students in the clinical psychology PhD program at Idaho State University have created a Neurodivergent Social Support Group to foster connections and friendships among neurodivergent adults in Pocatello, providing a safe and inclusive space for activities and support.

The group, started by Joules Emerson and Julia Duran, has successfully facilitated social interactions, offering a judgment-free environment that addresses the unique needs of neurodivergent individuals and aims to reduce loneliness and isolation.

At the first meeting, Emerson and Duran immediately saw connections. 

“Right away these two individuals quickly connected over shared interests,” Duran said. “It was amazing to see. The whole idea of the group was for people to create friendships and bond, and it was awesome to see that happen right in front of us.”

Neurodivergence refers to the differences in the ways individual's brains work. Neurodiversity is akin to the idea that there’s diversity among brains, just like there is diversity with race and gender or sexual identity. 

The Neurodivergent Social Support Group began in October 2023 as an assignment as part of an advanced social psychology course taught by Dr. Mona Xu. Emerson and Duran wanted to do something positive for the community. Evidence that shows that community is an important factor for individuals living with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), yet something that is historically difficult for these individuals to have access to. 

“I am a self-disclosed neurodivergent individual,” Emerson says. “Part of my experience was lack of social support. I remembered the issues of accessibility to friendships when I was younger, and knowing how big of an impact it had on me, I thought this was important to address.”

The importance of a safe space for connection

Emerson and Duran say there can be a lot of stigma for neurodivergent individuals, including a misunderstanding of what neurodivergent people are capable of, and neurodivergent people develop friendships in ways that may look different to neurotypical individuals. 

“We’re creating a space where people can share their interests and feel comfortable relating to others who share some of their life experiences,” Duran said. 

Some participants in the group have said they enjoy the group because they know they won’t face judgment, Emerson said. 

“We emphasize no-judgment and strive to be as neuro-confirming as possible,” Emerson said. “We focus on acceptance and try to convey that participants are not judged for who they are as a fundamental person like they may have been by others or in certain situations elsewhere or in their past.”

Duran said the group is not therapy but a safe space for neurodivergent individuals to connect and build friendships, with activities like painting, coloring, movies, and games to facilitate comfort without pressure to speak or participate. Emerson highlighted the importance of accessibility, welcoming not just people with autism but anyone with intellectual disabilities, and noted that the group includes both ISU students and community members of various ages, ensuring a safe and inclusive environment.

Emerson and Duran say that they try to keep the activities low-energy because it can take a lot of energy for many of the participants to go out. Additionally they host it at a location where participants can feel more secure, where they won’t have the risk of their identities being criticized. The building is free and accessible with elevators and ramps, and free parking. 

Both students are also part of the ISU Cares Lab, which is led by Dr. Robert Rieske, clinical assistant professor in psychology at ISU. The ISU Cares Lab researchers support the Nuerodivergent Social Support Group, and offer research based ideas. 

The stakes are high. The suicidality risk for neurodivergent individuals is higher than for non-neurodivergent individuals. Research by Hirvikoski et al. (2016) and Nock et al. (2008) found that autistic adults are over seven times more likely to die by suicide compared to the general population. Additionally, autistic individuals have significantly higher lifetime prevalence rates of suicidal ideation (34.2% vs. 9.2%), suicide plans (21.9% vs. 3.1%), and suicide attempts (24.3% vs. 2.7%) compared to non-autistic individuals. Neurodivergent folks also face greater levels of loneliness and isolation that social support groups can potentially help alleviate.

The social connection goals for the group seem to be having an impact. Emerson is impressed with how active Discord chat participants have been in sharing interests and encouraging one another.

“One person went out to see the northern lights,” Emerson says. “They shared pictures and I was blown away because they were so gorgeous.” Other members have shared their own personal experiences and coping mechanisms on the platform.

In addition to members of the group finding connection both at in-person meetings and via the Discord chat group, the two say that they have seen members support each other by sharing personal experiences and resources they’ve found helpful. For example, participants have been able to discuss mental health providers in the area and discuss helpful student resources and services at ISU.

Emerson and Duran plan to continue the Neurodivergent Social Group as long as they are students at ISU. With both of them entering their second year of the PhD program in the fall, they have a number of years to continue making an impact.

Additionally, Emerson hopes to start a therapy group for teens in Spring 2025, aiming to create research-informed treatments that affirm ASD identities, address loneliness and suicidality, and enhance social connectivity. Duran is focused on researching the neural mechanisms of ASD, early intervention, and diagnosis, with goals to develop new diagnostic tools and treatment progress monitors. She is also working on a suicide screener and addressing food and eating disorders associated with autism.

Contact and Group Information
The Neurodivergent Social Support Group is open to all adults in the Pocatello and ISU community who would like to join other Neurodiverse (ADHD, ASD, etc) individuals. The support group is sponsored by the ISU Collaboration for Autism Research Education and Support Lab. Email joulesemerson@isu.edu or juliaduran@isu.edu for more information or to join the Discord chat group.

Upcoming Meetings:
Monday, June 3, 2024, 6 – 8 PM
Monday, July 1, 2024, 6 – 8 PM
Monday, August 5, 2024, 6 – 8 PM

Location: Garrison Hall, room 501 on the Idaho State University Pocatello Campus
Address: 1400 East Terry, Pocatello, ID 


College of Arts and LettersUniversity News