internship, day one

When I walked in the room, they already knew my name. "This is Jenn too! Now there are two Jenn's in the group! And if the other Jen came in, then we would have THREE Jenn's in this room!" The three elementary school-aged boys tell me their names in a tangle of shouts and laughter. One jumps and claps. The two others are sharing a seat; one ends up on the ground and decides he likes it there instead.

They are overly-energized and eager to impress any audience they might have. And you wouldn't know it at first glance, but they all have one important thing in common: each one falls on the high-functioning end of a developmental or autistic disorder.

The two speech & OT therapists work patiently with the boys, paying close attention to and utilizing each one's strengths and weaknesses. They give constructive comments in areas that need work and give them much needed encouragement and praise when they succeed. They work with the boys on group & one-on-one interactions, as well as helping them tune up their speech and movement. The entire one-hour session is, basically, hands-on training in social skills.

Too freakin' cool.

In one exercise, the kids pair off with a buddy. The simple objective: to learn something new about your buddy that you didn't know before by asking him questions. With the help of the therapists, they hold pretty engaging conversations about everything from favorite foods to names of pets. After a few minutes, the group comes back together and each person shares what they learned about their buddy.

One boy, who looked to be about 5 or 6, stood up to share what he learned about his buddy, who happened to be one of the therapists. "We both like dogs," he said as he alternated from looking out the window to looking at the ground. "I like dogs a lot. I had a dog but he was old so he died. Her dog is still a baby. And she likes hot dogs too with mustard and onions but I don't like that when I eat a hot dog because I don't like onions." His hands flap wildly as he speaks, leading me to guess that maybe he's in the group to help manage the effects of Asperger syndrome.

I go to college with a few people who have Asperger's. I've heard what people say about them, about their awkward tendencies and their strange ways of social interaction. I chalk it up to a lack of understanding about a relatively newer and lesser-known diagnosis. There's no reason for their quirky or strange behavior other than that they're wired to respond to social cues a little differently than what we perceive as the "norm." Get beyond that little bump and you can have as engaging and "normal" a conversation with them as you could with anyone else.

Hot dog kid is lucky. All of the boys are. They're getting essential support in mastering skills that will help them succeed in all aspects of their lives, in the present and in the future. What they learn in that social skills & playgroup now will help them ten, fifteen, twenty years down the line. It makes a visible difference. And I can't wait until I someday get to be part of someone's support network.

Yes. This is exactly what I want to be doing with the rest of my life.

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