Special-needs teens paired with peers to help communication
For special-needs children who communicate in nontraditional ways, interacting with peers can be awkward and lead to social isolation.
A new, nonprofit organization in Westport is trying to help teenagers in that group learn better communication skills by pairing them with volunteers from area high schools.
The organization, Inclusion Teaming, aims to help its clients learn communications diversity while at the same time heightening the volunteers' awareness of nontraditional ways of communicating, according to its executive director, Catherine A. Hogan.
Three current clients with Asperger's syndrome -- a milder form of autism characterized by social isolation and impairments in both verbal and nonverbal communications -- are paired with three volunteers, said Hogan, a licensed clinical social worker.
The volunteers are students at Greens Farms Academy in Westport and Fairfield Prep.
Justin Sherman of Weston, a graduate of Curry College in Milton, Mass., and has Asperger's, is the group's student leader. Thomas McGovern, a math and science instructor at St. Gabriel School in Milford, is a co-facilitator at the 75-minute weekly meetings.
Hogan said the format is the same each week, although learning materials change. After participating in an "icebreaker" activity designed to help the participants feel more relaxed, Hogan and McGovern reviewed the procedures.
"Kids with differences usually have a hard time with some group work skills, such as taking turns," Hogan said. "We use fun tasks to remind them that there are certain things they must do as we go through the teaming process."
The learning content of the program is next on the agenda. During one of the sessions, Hogan played a video detailing the life of a 22-year old woman with Asperger's.
"We then spend time doing a deep briefing exercise," she said. Both the special-needs students and the volunteers have the opportunity to talk about the topic. We want to know what they got out of it."
Among the skills touched upon each week are learning how to listen, to give feedback and be tolerant of different viewpoints.
"Everyone is very supportive of each other, which is really wonderful," Hogan said.
As part of her work, Hogan has also run anti-bullying programs for educators and professionals.
One of the major reasons children are bullied, she said, is that others cannot understand why they're acting seemingly different. However, if (special-needs children) could practice interacting socially with other people their age -- and, likewise, if teens who have no skills differentials could spend more time being with those with special needs -- understanding, acceptance and tolerance would flourish.
"It definitely improves the chances that bullying will not occur when they successfully work together," she said.
Hogan doesn't like calling the program volunteers "mentors" because the word implies that they are "helping" someone in need. Instead, Inclusion Teaming emphasizes a mutual respect for learning that occurs for both members of the paired students.
Neither does Hogan like to say "social skills."
"That's just a buzz word," she said. "Kids with Asperger's are never going to act the same way as us. And, that's all right. So, how about if we all learn as much as we can about Asperger's and find strategies to forge the differences together?"
Although Inclusion Teaming has about 45 students on its roster of volunteers, Hogan hopes that more students with atypical communication skills will step forward and join the groups that are presently being formed.
"We don't care what their atypical skills are because we pair children with similar learning profiles together anyway," Hogan said.
Inclusion Teaming is at 1465 Post Road E., Westport. More information is available online at inclusionteaming.org or by calling 203-254-0100.