Do social skills groups help all students on the spectrum? (part 2)


In my previous blogs I talked about the problems I had in high school, how overall public high school experience could be improved for students on the spectrum, and how social skills groups really didn’t help me. One of the things that many autistic students have complained about school was the educational material covered had nothing to do with their interests. I understand how they feel, I have been through that situation very many times. Going to school and learning topics that you are interested in makes school so much easier. Starting this fall, I am attending the Lenape Vo Tech School in Ford City, Pennsylvania for opto electronics. Opto electronics requires some very high level math that I never really had experience in before. The math they taught me at Freeport was only the basic math that most people my age already should know how to do, such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, and fractions. I have to tell you that the basic math bores the hell out of me, and the only way my school ever taught that was through books and worksheets. In one of my other blogs I also talked about how my math teacher would give us these very large worksheets with about thirty multi step problems, and she would expect them to be completed by the next day. I hated her class more than anything in the world, not only because it was a lot of work, but it also wasn’t interesting. The teacher didn’t even like teaching the subject, everyday she would complain about how “boring and tedious” it was. This woman is one of the many teachers out there that need to retire, they won’t try anything new, and they don’t try to make the material interesting. I could even tell that the other teachers don’t like her, sometimes I would hear them make references towards her. If you are a parent of a child on the spectrum, and your school districts faculty and staff won’t cooperate with you, it is time to find another school. End of story.

Aside from the lack of social skills, one of the common characteristics of a child or teenager with Aspergers Syndrome is that they have very limited interests, some may be computers, history, star names, buses, or airplanes. Because of these limited interests, it makes it very difficult for the child or adolescent to communicate with other people. My obsessive interests varied over the years, when I was a little kid I was interested in fans, I was fascinated with fans because of the spinning motion that came from them. I remember when I was around three or four years old, my mother would bring me to the old Bi Lo foods store in Natrona Heights, PA. In the front of the store, where all the check out lanes were, a ceiling fan hung from the ceiling. Every-time I saw it, I would obsess about it. Not only did I obsess about the ceiling fan, I obsessed about the fans inside the giant freezers that helped keep all of the produce cool. During one of our weekly trips to that store, I became so mesmerized by the fan that I stared at it, and I disappeared into my own world. My mother told me that during that store trip, we were buying food for my sisters birthday party. My mom was so focused on buying food for the party that she forgot that I was standing there. About thirty minutes later, my mom went back to the aisle she accidentally left me in, and there I was, staring at the refrigerator fan. I stared at the fan for about thirty minutes. After that situation, my mom probably knew that something was wrong with me, but she didn’t know what.

When I was about five or six years old, I started kindergarten at Buffalo Elementary school in Sarver, Pennsylvania. We were in a two room school house that was not too far from the main Buffalo Elementary Building, which held students from first to sixth grade. I remember the first day of school, I rode the school bus for the very first time. I really enjoyed the noise the engine made, and I got along really well with the driver, a woman with the name Sandy. I came home that day real exited, and I told my mom about how much I enjoyed the bus ride. Every day since then, I would spend countless hours every day pretending I was driving a school bus, I would make all of the sounds that the busses would make, and I would even pretend I was the driver yelling at the kids. I would always yell things like “sit down and shut up”, and when I would do these things outside, the neighbors all looked at me like I was crazy. I never even paid attention to my neighbors reactions to my awkward behavior, I didn’t care, I was in my own little world.

I stayed interested in school buses until I was in about the third grade, than I had a new obsession. It all started in my third grade classroom with Mrs. Casey, my third grade teacher. They were completely remodeling our entire school, and they opened the first half of the building. On that particular day, we were getting ready to walk to lunch. When I got in my assigned spot in the line, we heard this very high pitched, screeching noise, and at first I didn’t know what it was. I looked around and noticed that it was the schools new fire alarm. The alarm was also equipped with flashing strobe lights, which really hurt your eyes when you looked at them. As soon as we got outside, all students were all allowed to go back into the building, and the third and fourth graders were instructed to go to lunch. Ever since then, I had an obsession with the fire alarm and the day we had an unscheduled fire drill when we were supposed to go to lunch. It was about three weeks after the whole fire drill ordeal, I brought it up during lunch, as I did everyday, and a student blurted out “we’re tired of listening to you talk about the fire drills, find something else to talk about.” I kept silent for the rest of the lunch period, because I didn’t know what else to talk about, the fire alarm was my obsession at the time, I was interested in nothing else but the fire alarm.

About four years later, I moved onto the junior high school. Freeport Junior High was a very old building that was built in 1923. It had absolutely no airconditioning, and had two floors. In seventh grade, I had most of my classes on the second floor, and in eighth grade, most of my classes were on the frist floor. Going from a brand new, air conditioned building, to an ancient non airconditioned building was the change I dreaded the most. I grew out of my obsession with fire drills and the fire alarm, and I noticed that everybody else started to change from the cute little kids they were in elementary school. All of the social groups called “cliques” started to develop. Many of the people I was friends with in elementary school forgot about me and went into their own “cliques”. I didn’t really know what to do with myself, I didn’t really fit in with any of the “cliques” that everybody else fit into. I was an outsider. I had some aquaintences in junior high, but I was afraid to ask them if they wanted to get together on the weekends because I was afraid they would say no, or say something really rude about me. I obviously didn’t talk to any of my friends from elementary school because they were all only interested in their own cliques, and not interested in me.

As the spring of my seventh grade came near, my parents told me that they were going to the same summer camp that I already went to for about four years. It was a program called Summer Express and was held at Northwest Elementary school in Butler, PA. I didn’t want to go to this camp because I was already involved in Wesley Wonder Kids, which went from 7:00 am to 9:00 pm, and the summer express camp went from 8:00 am to 4:00 pm. This camp was designed for kids with ADHD, and it was mostly an outdoor recreational camp. We spent more than half the day outside playing games like kickball, soccer, volleyball, and wiffle ball. It was also an educational camp, and there were two hour long classroom sessions of math, reading and art. It had a point system, and you would earn points for positive behaviors and you would loose points for negative behaviors. At the end of the week, you had a set amount of points you were supposed to earn, and if you didn’t earn them, you would have to stay at the school and do chores like picking up garbage and cleaning the school. I earned every field, and I was already more mature than most of the kids. I knew that because the kids that didn’t earn the field trip at the end of the week would have screaming meltdowns. I hated having to be around the kids that didn’t know how to handle their frustration appropriately, and I also hated being stuck in a classroom doing worksheets, reading stories, having to stay outside and play recreational games in the 90 degree heat, and having to get up at 5:30  in the morning for the camp every day. The bus that was supposed to bring me to the program everyday picked me up at 6:40 in the morning, and the ride lasted for over an hour because there were about seven other kids they had to pick up, and they were all from different towns.

I explained to my mom that I wanted to go to a different program, and one where I could promote my interests. The director from the Wesley Wonder Kids program recommended a summer camp called Computing Workshop. It was held at LaRoche College in McCandles, Pennsylvania for the first three summers I attended, and this summer it was held at the Community Day School, in the heart of the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh. The program taught computer classes for students that are on the Autistic Spectrum, or that have other differences that limit them from learning advanced computer skills in their regular school, such as mental retardation, or down syndrome. The program also has a social skills component, social skills groups are held once a week, and usually last for about and hour and thirty minutes. Starting last summer, I had the opportunity to be in charge of the social skills groups. We play the computer game The Sims 2, which is a life simulation game where you can create your own virtual people, and move them into their own house. In the game, you can buy your everyday appliances and furniture, give your characters jobs, and now, you can even give them their own pets, or move them into their own apartment. The program also teaches real life skills such as finding a job, paying bills, and social and interpersonal skills. I have been attending this program for about four years now, and I am now considered a “staff member in training”.  In the past, Computing Workshop has taught students that are now staff members.

I am grateful that I am able to attend this summer program, because it has given me the opportunity to learn the skills to making social relationships. It has given me the opportunity to make friendships with people I never would have gotten to know if I wasn’t in this program. One of those people is a guy with the name of Aaron Barker. Aaron is a cool, but quiet and layed back kind of a guy that would get along with just about anybody. He is an avid sports fan, and participated in wrestling when he was in high school. He and I don’t have all of the same hobby interests, but we have the similar personality traits. I feel much more comfortable being around layed back and low key people like him, than loud and in your face people, like most kids in my high school. He is one of those people that as soon as you started to get to know, you knew he would be willing to talk about anything that was on your mind. He is one of the most wonderful people that I have ever met in my life, and is great at giving advice when you have something bothering you. He mentioned to me about why I shouldn’t let other people’s actions toward me bring me down, and it really changed the way I thought about other people. Sure, there are people that will try to make fun of me and bring me down, but I will not let them get to me. It makes no sense to worry about those one or two people that are mean to you, because there are a lot of nice people out there, you just have to try your hardest to find them. Sometimes, people won’t come to you unless you come to them. Before I met Aaron, I never really had that one true friend that welcomed me, stood up for me, and wouldn’t use people like me to make them look better than everybody else. I am very hopeful that this friendship will last for many years, and I am hopeful that he will never forget the impact he made on my life.

The point I wanted to make in this blog was that students on the Autistic Spectrum and Aspergers Syndrome can learn things their intersted without help from their school, whether it be computers, music, art, or science. I also wanted to proove that with the right help, they can learn the social skills they need to know for life. Social skills groups don’t work for everybody, especially for people like me. High school doesn’t last forever, the awful people there won’t mean a single thing to them after they graduate, so don’t worry about them. I am hopeful that you enjoyed reading this, and I am hopeful that you will show this to someone that needs help. I pretty much answered the question for myself, social skills groups don’t work for all students on the spectrum.

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6 thoughts on “Do social skills groups help all students on the spectrum? (part 2)

  1. Derek I enjoyed reading your blog. I am just beginning 9th grade this Fall and am concerned about many things. I will know alot of “acquaintances” at high school–but I am not in any cliques and have felt like an outsider in middle school.
    It is not for the lack of trying. I have made countless attempts at being friends with kids, typical and on the spectrum and have basically hit a brick wall. Social groups have not really been successful for me. It seems no one who functions at my level is interested in what I am, although I seem to get grouped together…. No real successful friendships made via STAT camp at Watson either. So I completely agree with you.
    I would so much like to have two or three “REAL” friends….

    • Aaron, the best advice I can give you is to not listen to what the rude and ignorant people say about you. You are who you are, and you can’t really change that. Freshman year is a very hard year to go through, but as the high school years go on, things usually do get better. When you graduate, those ignorant people will mean nothing to you. And also, try to find groups with similar interests as you, joining a club in school is one thing I recommend.

      Aaron Barker, the guy I mentioned in this blog doesn’t have all of the same interests as me, but he still really likes me and wants to be my friend. Sometimes it’s good to hang out with people of different interests than you. I don’t always agree with everything Aaron says, but I still do really like him.

  2. Hi, Derek, another well-written and moving piece. I think Aaron is cool, too, and I’m glad that you have him in your life. He is lucky to know you, too. 🙂 Sheila

  3. Derek, your account of the experience of being on the spectrum and being interested in fans and so on, is extraordinary. Since communication is *usually* one of the issues for people on the spectrum, that first-hand experience of what it is like to be on the spectrum is not often articulated for others to understand. Thank you for sharing!

  4. Aaron sounds like a nice guy. And the Aaron who posted here seems quite nice too.

    Opto electronics sounds interesting.

    Great to read why you don’t think social skills groups work for all kids on the spectrum, and adults too.

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