Saturday, August 11, 2007

It's All Over but the Clean-up

Well, friends and Romans, the seven-week journey of my summer job is nearing landfall. It’s all over but the clean-up. (That happens on Monday.)

We started with a full week of training, and then spent six weeks teaching theater games and making films with kids with Asperger’s Syndrome. This is an approach to teaching them social skills – the key deficit for people with Asperger’s, the one that all of them have in common to one degree or another. And an amazingly effective apporach it is, based on the gains I saw during the summer.

They know they’re there to learn social skills (and most, though not all, know that they have Asperger’s). But that’s essentially forgotten, and pretty quickly. The games are fun, and there are dozens of them, so each camper has at least two favorites. We played many of them each day. They get to be hams, to have their intelligence challenged, and to use their imagination nearly all day. In the moment, there’s no awareness going to “Hey! I just made sustained eye contact!” or, “Hey! I just conveyed real feeling with a loud tone of voice!” Or moved their bodies in coordinated ways. Or employed rapid, flexible thinking.

All these apparently small achievements are monumental for Aspies.

After they’ve played the games 20 times, it begins to sink in unconsciously that they are capable of initiating a full connection with another person (or entering a new environment, or doing all sorts of things that previously frightened them) and that good things will usually result. How wonderful is that?

There are many social pragmatics programs out there, and from their popularity, I’m inferring that they must be at least somewhat effective. But from what I’ve read (and heard from satisfied parents on the last day of camp), none of them pack that vital X-factor the theater games do: The gains in social skills come directly from the goals of the activity itself, which just happens to look like a fun game – not a “program” or a “lesson.”

Yet there are dozens of games (and more being created all the time, all over the world), and each targets a different set of social skills. So, they can be craftily combined to target specific kids, or to achieve carefully chosen group goals.

As you can tell, I’m fairly excited about the gains I saw kids make in six short weeks.

And it was both exciting and heartbreaking to see our teens – both the macho, crass, aggressive ones and the awkward, sweet, retiring ones – run up to us and give us hugs and good wishes and good-bye cards. We all milled around at the end of the day; no one wanted to say good-bye. When that last kid (who happened to be one of my favorites) got in his bus, we counselors looked around balefully, shrugged our shoulders and silently headed for the rooms to clean up.

(Of course, there was a wrap-up party last night, and it was boisterous -- a great way to blow off all that pent-up poignancy.)

It was a grueling summer session, five hours of intense contact a day with kids who often can barely stand 10 minutes of such (not to mention the hours of paperwork every day). But I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. We made a difference in their lives – and they sure affected me pretty deeply. My favorites will be on my mind for weeks, I’m sure.


Eric Little said...

Thanks for bringing us along.

Thinkulous said...

It was a pleasure, Eric. Stay tuned; there may be exciting Asperger's-related news on Thinkulous in the coming weeks.

Eric Little said...

You've probably already heard about this, but just in case--in a recent "New Yorker" the Washington Post's music critic has an article about his experience having Asperger's--I heard him interviewed on NPR yesterday.

Thinkulous said...

Eric, I did hear about that. I went and found the NPR interview, and my dad is sending me the New Yorker article, which I look forward to. Thank you for the heads up -- I'll take any and all.