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    Sunday, November 27, 2022

    Brady's Brigade grows strong

    Brady enjoys time with his brothers and sisters on a recent morning at home. (Renee Trafford photo)

    Brady Canoza’s eyes are alight. We have spun off from a conversation about Lego Robotics into a detailed rundown of the Netflix show Voltron, with its myriad plot twists and character drama – including an exposition of the difference between mutants and robots.

    Clearly, this is a passion. The 11-year-old talks excitedly about the show’s characters traveling across dimensions (“Do you think we could do that in real life?” he is asked. “Probably in a couple millennium,” comes the matter-of-fact reply), and then he describes an episode in which people try to destroy time.

    Would he want to travel in time?

    “Probably,” he replies. When asked where he would go back to, he hesitates, makes a face, protests a little. No, not the past. He would go into the future.

    “I’d go into 2099. No - 2999,” he says. “I’d basically be dead by then.”

    “Is that even a year?” asks his younger sister Pru.

    “Yes, it probably is,” Brady tells her. “I’d probably find out that, like, my son somehow grew an empire from Brady’s Brigade.”

    He laughs.

    “Imagine if that was possible?”

    So in the year 2999, there’s still Brady’s Brigade?

    “Probably,” he replies, and starts picturing it. “Probably starts to grow famous. Like celebrities probably came and stuff.”

    The present-day Brady’s Brigade, here in 2019, is still in growth mode. In its third year, the group is a combination playgroup and support for children up to age 14. It operates as a casual social skills group where kids can play with peers and parents can meet to swap tips and socialize as well.

    Originally intended as a social skills and support group for kids with autism, it has morphed to include the more general term “special needs” after Brady’s mother, Corine, found herself fielding inquiries from people all around the state and even across the country (they had to add the word “Connecticut” to the group name to filter things). It is now known as Brady’s Brigade Special Needs Support Group.

    The group meets monthly or every other month at the Waterford Country School.

    Brady’s Brigade started in 2016 after Corine discovered that Brady, diagnosed as a toddler with moderate autism, was taking it upon himself to message people from the online forums that Corine participated in.

    “Would you want to start a group?” she asked him, and Brady said yes.

    Parents of children diagnosed with autism, who need guidance with social skills (or with other special needs who simply want peers to hang out with) quickly discover that their options are limited. A variety of social skills groups exist for teenagers, but very few for elementary school-aged kids. And then there is the expense of it, whether for a group, a camp, or individual therapy.

    In short, there’s not much like Brady’s Brigade in Connecticut.

    “And with all the other support groups running out of money, they kind of need a new support group to turn (to),” Brady says.

    “And see, yours is what?” his mom asks. “How much does it cost to go to yours?”

    “Zero!” Brady exclaims.

    The group has use of the facility for free, and get-togethers include arts and crafts, some light snacks, use of the playground, and perhaps most importantly, a Foosball table. There is no pressure for kids to participate and everyone goes at their own pace.

    Eventually, Corine would like the group to become more of an official social skills group, with a consulting board-certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) assisting with programs. She is pursuing her master’s degree with the intent of eventually becoming a BCBA herself. Meanwhile, she is raising four kids with her husband, who serves in the Navy and is sometimes deployed.

    “That is one of the things I hear about when we have people coming to Brady’s Brigade from FAVOR [a nonprofit advocacy organization] or when we’ve had Brady’s ABA [applied behavior analysis] therapist come,” Corine explains. “Parents say, ‘I can’t afford a social skills group, but I want my child to develop these social skills.’ … People shouldn’t have to struggle financially to support their children.”

    Corine said Brady’s Brigade recently received some funding from the Southeast Mental Health System of Care, which will help with supplies, food, and for hosts to come in and give presentations.

    Meanwhile, Brady enjoys the camaraderie and at the time of his interview, was looking forward to an upcoming get-together in which kids would decorate Easter eggs, along with playing Foosball.

    “It’s amazing when we’re in the group,” Brady says. He is the face of the organization, while Corine does the behind-the-scenes work. And true to its mission, Brady finds himself honing his skills as his mother makes sure he greets guests, signing them in and visiting with them during the afternoon.

    The group has a Facebook page, a YouTube channel, and Corine has an Instagram account (@crcanoza) devoted to Brady’s Brigade-related news and information. There’s talk of starting a Pen Pal program.

    There’s also a fledgling Birthday Bash program, in which Corine fields requests for a personalized birthday greeting from Brady; parents will send her some information on what their child is into, their favorite colors, and how old the child will be. Corine hands the information off to Brady, who signs a note, writes something encouraging, and draws pictures of the child’s favorite things.

    Brady also had a blog for awhile; he plans to get back into it, talking about what life is like for him.

    And that - the particular gifts and challenges of life for Brady and kids like him - speaks to the group’s origins. As they discussed it, Corine looked at her son. She had realized something.

    “I don’t really understand you, do I?” she asked.

    “No,” he replied.

    It was an observation on both sides, not fault-finding; a simple acknowledgment that only Brady knows what it’s like to navigate the world with autism. And that other kids like him, understand.

    “It’s amazing when we’re in the group,” Brady says, adding that “everyone plays … Or sometimes they don’t do all of the activities … and that’s fine.”

    More and more new people are showing up each month.

    “It’s fun,” he answers, adding — “and wise.”

    For more information, visit Brady’s Brigade Special Needs Support Group for Kids on Facebook.

    Brady, 11, Prudence, 10, and Caleb, 6, play Yu-Gi-Oh! on a recent morning at home in Montville. (Renee Trafford photo)