Thanks to the Knoxville News Sentinel for sharing information about our Smoky Mountain Friendship Club with this article!
Friendship Clubs provide safe environment for autistic children to practice social skills
By: Kristi L. Nelson of the Knoxville News Sentinel
Posted: Sept 04, 2012
Betty Bell saw a chance to help her autistic daughter learn to interact with other children, to actually go out as a family in a public place without fear of dirty looks and snide remarks if Dalila became overstimulated and had a "meltdown."
Dalila Bell, 6, just saw a chance to play and have fun.
The two were attending a party at the East Tennessee Discovery Center children's museum in Chilhowee Park, sponsored by Rebecca Nieto, whose son, Maurice, is on the autism spectrum, for families involved in the Smoky Mountain Friendship Club.
Four years ago, parents with the Autism Society of America's East Tennessee chapter formed a Friendship Club, a monthly opportunity for families with autistic children to teach their kids social skills — and gain support and tips from each other.
Though there are programs that work on those skills in a clinical setting, they're often expensive and not always covered by insurance, said ASA-ET President Hope Paultre, "so now we do it ourselves."
The first club was in Knoxville, though open to families in other counties. A Tri-Cities Friendship Club soon followed. The Smoky Mountain Friendship Club, which focuses on Sevier County, began last year, a Morristown club is just a few months old, and a Roane County club is in the works.
Twice a year, the clubs meet to decide on activities for the coming months. Past outings have included miniature golf, go-carts, a cooking class, gymnastics, a train excursion and visits to various Sevier County attractions, which often will admit the Friendship Club members earlier than the general public, to give children who can't handle large crowds or a lot of stimuli a chance to enjoy activities.
The clubs, which have Facebook pages, have some joint events, including the annual "big" trip to an indoor water park in Gatlinburg, which gives them a group discount and lets them come in an hour early.
"A lot of families (who have children on the autism spectrum) really begin to feel trapped," said Paultre, a speech-language pathologist. "When they're out in public, they have to make a lot of choices and decisions that are tough" while dealing with criticism from onlookers.
Three of Paultre's seven children are on the autism spectrum; she recalls once having to restrain her son in a warehouse store for an hour and a half while other shoppers gawked.
"You can't always look at a child with autism and tell they have special needs," she said.
At Friendship Club events, children can interact with others, practicing skills like patience, eye contact, conversation and taking turns, while it puts parents "in a situation where if our kids have a meltdown, we're not looked down upon," Bell said.
Her daughter's "meltdowns" look like simple tantrums but are actually reactions to being overstimulated — by a crowd, a loud noise, even a certain texture, Bell said.
Paultre said some Knoxville movie theaters have special showings for the Friendship Clubs, where the sound is lowered, the lights not completely out and children don't have to stay seated if they need to get up and spin or engage in other self-soothing behaviors.
At the same time, she said, it's a teaching environment. Parents can show their children the way they are supposed to act in a movie theater, without disrupting a public showing.
"Some of our kids had never been to a movie theater," she said.
When her son, 9, was diagnosed, Nieto said, "I felt very alone. I didn't have any support." She found Smoky Mountain Friendship Club when "I was looking for some kids who were like Maurice and some parents who knew what I was going through."
Paultre said non-autistic siblings, like her own daughters, also benefit from the events because they're "able to play with other kids who don't go, 'What's wrong with your brother?'"
Friendship Clubs are open to anyone but generally geared to children 18 and younger, Paultre said; another organization, Breakthrough Corp., has social events for young adults on the spectrum.
Paultre's 15-year-old son, Yves, who identifies himself as autistic but high-functioning, said the events have pushed him to develop social skills out of his comfort zone.
"It's easier to socialize with kids with little or no social skills when you have little or no social skills," he said, and then he practices those skills at school, where not all the other students are autistic.
"It's hard for children with autism to make friends, but Maurice really opens up with other kids in the club," Nieto said. "They have a lot of the same interests."
Social skills clubs
Autism Society of America-East Tennessee chapter: 865-247-5082;www.asaetc.org
Breakthrough Corp.: 865-247-0065; www.breakthroughknoxville.com
Fall Education Conference
What: Annual ASA-ET/Knox County Schools conference on autism
When: 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 13
Where: Sara Simpson Development and Training Center, 801 Tipton Ave.
Speaker: Jim Ball, president/CEO, JB Autism Consulting, "Evidence-Based Strategies for Successful Programming for Individuals with an Autism Spectrum Disorder"
Other topics: "Using Visual Strategies to Promote Independence at School and in the Home," "Enhancing Social Understanding Through the Use of Social Stories," Adult Aspie Panel Discussion
Cost: $65/person, with discounts for teachers, ASA-ET members, couples and those registering by Sept. 9; includes box lunch
Register: 865-247-5082; www.asaetc.org