Orley Garber’s daughter had a problem that’s pretty typical for those on the autism spectrum: she had trouble making friends. “From preschool, I felt like she didn’t have a place,” Garber says, “because she was really overwhelmed in mainstream settings and she just felt annoyed by ‘the boys who don’t listen’ in special-needs settings.”
Around some girls, though, Garber noticed that Maxie, who just turned 7, blossomed. To bring girls like her little bee together – and give them all a change of scene from boy-heavy special-needs activities – Garber set out to build a hive. The result is Builder Bees, a local nonprofit that hosts monthly get-togethers and outings for K-12 girls on and off the spectrum. “I wanted an antidote to the queen bees and wannabees, and the builder bees are the ones who sweeten the honeycomb without recognition, which is basically how I see these girls,” Garber explains.
Garber says that autism is different for girls than it is for boys, and that these differences can mean that girls spend years without a diagnosis. “There are girls with autism who are not identified because they can internalize their anxiety and their context blindness,” she says. “They don’t really understand what’s going on, but they’re quiet about it. Or they’ll mask their social issues because they’ll stand with the group and they’ll watch.” This means that they don’t stand out, the way children who isolate themselves or are disruptive might. Without a diagnosis to explain their condition, girls can be left feeling awkward and alone.
Garber, who spent years as a teacher and is now completing her California credential in special education, wanted to give Maxie something beyond therapy that taught specific skills. “I wanted a place where she would feel comfortable as well, and where other girls would feel comfortable,” she says.
Founded in January 2018, Builder Bees began with Garber and a handful of moms holding meetups at her home and a local park. During the past two years, they’ve honed their approach to introduce enough structure to help the girls connect.
A Builder Bees dance party in December at the We Rock the Spectrum inclusive kids gym is a perfect example. At a typical dance party, music would be playing and snacks would be served, but kids would be left to find dance partners, chat and snack on their own. “All those things that come so easily to neurotypical people don’t come so easily to these guys,” Garber says. At the Builder Bees party, the girls started off playing on the gym equipment, then headed to the dance room as they were ready. “We started them with musical chairs, so there was a structure,” says Garber.
Builder Bees have also gone bowling, to a pumpkin festival and to see “Frozen 2.” And gatherings have grown from an average of five girls to 15-20.
The organization held its second annual Builder Bees Fashion & Talent Show Jan. 26 at Adat Shalom in West L.A. Musician Sarah Lonsert was the special guest, and girls showed off their talents and favorite outfits. Karen Michelle boutique donated outfits.
In February, Builder Bees teamed up with Ballet For All Kids for a Valentine party, and will have a baking get-together and bake sale.
Meanwhile, Garber is always on the lookout for new girls – on and off the spectrum – who want to participate, and new volunteers. And she is working on grant writing to help expand the outreach of Builder Bees, with the ultimate goal of finding a permanent facility and transportation that would help more girls attend events. “The girls and the parents who have come to our events have said that they feel accepted right away,” Garber says. “Really, it’s about what I wanted it to be about, which is girls who feel they don’t have friends.”
The Builder Bees motto is “Every Girl Deserves a Hive,” and Garber and her team are striving to build one big enough for everyone. Learn more at www.builderbeesla.com.