Unique program connects teens who have autism spectrum disorders
Asperger’s Syndrome and other autism spectrum disorders are soon expected to be diagnosed in as many as 1 in 150 children living in the United States. This unprecedented phenomenon has left the disability service system struggling to effectively support and train this new and emerging population of people with disabilities. Without the proper support, many high potential individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) will remain at risk and be unable to pursue higher education, gain meaningful employment, or successfully integrate independently into adult society.
A common trait of individuals with ASD is a marked lack of comfort with social interactions. This often leads to social isolation and a reluctance to attempt new experiences, both of which prevent these otherwise intelligent young people from continuing their education beyond high school and ultimately finding gainful employment. A significant number of young adults with ASD who have average to above average intelligence, as well as high school diplomas and post-secondary educational experiences. However, due to their social limitations they are not making a successful transition to adult independence. Instead, they remain reliant on their families and social welfare systems for support.
In response to these needs, Reach for Resources, Inc. launched a unique social therapy group for teens with autism spectrum disorders in September 2006 in partnership with John Merges, a social worker who specializes in ASD. Today, Social Fun-Joyment has become one of Reach’s most requested services.
Merges and Reach had a unique vision to address this unmet need for teens with Asperger’s Syndrome and High Functioning Autism. By collaborating to offer a program that would provide emotional safety and support for these teens, they strove to instill and develop confidence in the teens while they engaged in social interactions.
Reach for Resources began offering one group in 2006, and they now currently offer five groups in the west metro alone: four at the Depot Coffee House in Hopkins, and one at Plymouth Creek Center. John Merges has also started a group in the White Bear Lake area. They are now seeking funding to collaborate with the Minneapolis Public Schools to start another new group for transition-age students at Minneapolis Community and Technical College in downtown Minneapolis.
According to Merges, “The Social Fun-Joyment program is a huge success because it differs from traditional autism therapy programs.” The program builds on the strengths of the participants rather than identifying and working on problems or deficits. “The teens in the program are using their skills, developing confidence, and having fun,” says Merges. Participants practice an array of social skills such as taking turns, listening and responding to each other, ordering food from a menu, planning and implementing social events, and participating in typical teen activities.
Sheree Drapp, whose fourteen-year-old son Dill participates in the program, can attest to the benefits. “Dill hates social skills class in school,” she says, “but he looks forward to coming to this group.” Drapp says the group has given her son confidence, practice with critical social skills, and, most importantly, camaraderie. Participants can interact with teens with similar needs and cultivate a peer network in a relaxed, supportive environment. Most importantly, they are learning crucial skills that will help them continue their education beyond high school, have success in finding employment as adults, and ultimately integrate into adult society.
For more information about the Social Fun-Joyment program, contact Reach for Resources at 952-988-4177.