Posted on 03 May 2013.
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HOST INTRO: Half a million children with autism will reach adulthood in the next 10 years. And as they grow up, a new network of support is growing up alongside them. Jessica Gould looks at one New York City program working to combat isolation among autistic adults by proscribing a healthy dose of chitchat …
Anton has a lot to say. Get him started on one of his favorite subjects …
ANTON: I collect videos of game shows and I also look on the Internet for other people who also tape game shows.
… and he’ll talk your ear off.
ANTON: I really like British game shows. A lot of the game shows in the U.S. aren’t very good.
In fact, when it comes to his passions – game shows, musicals, or pre-Elmo Sesame Street — it’s hard for Anton to know when to stop talking.
ANTON: (Fade under and out) They’re all show and not enough game. They’re too dumbed down.
Anton has Aspergers, and like many people on the autism spectrum, he has trouble reading social cues. So he often speaks in monologues, talking at people instead of with them. This type of social awkwardness has been a problem for as long as he can remember.
ANTON: Back in the 8th grade I was the target of bullies. … They said I didn’t have people skills. And I’m thinking the boys who abuse me for fun are just kids being kids?
Now 27, Anton says he’s still struggling. His last job was almost three years ago, working on the 2010 census and he lives with his parents.
ANTON: But they won’t need me again for another 10 years.
And he continues to have a lot of trouble making and keeping friends. He thought he had found his soul-mates with some other theater types. Then they told him they didn’t want him hanging around anymore.
ANTON: It was really upsetting last year being rejected a lot, being persona non grata with the kind of people I thought would be accepting of me. So I asked other people where they would go if they wanted to fit in.
That’s when Anton heard about the Adaptations program at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan on the Upper West Side. Adaptations helps young adults with special needs make friends and find jobs. For Anton and other individuals with Aspergers, a big part of that is learning to make small talk.
MERCER-WHITE: I can’t help but noticing you have a gymnastics t-shirt on.
Rebecca Mercer-White teaches the social skills class at Adaptations. And this isn’t just idle talk. It’s part of Anton’s new education.
ANTON: My uncles own a gymnastics school in Charlotte, North Carolina.
MERCER-WHITE: And Are you from North Carolina?
ANTON: My mom’s is from North Carolina. But I’m not. I grew up in New York City.
Every Tuesday evening, a small group of men and women in their 20s and 30s gather in a JCC classroom to work on the finer points of everyday conversation. Grown men and women — some coming straight from work and still wearing their business suits — stand in a circle and toss around rubber balls.
MERCER-WHITE: Good, good.
Mercer-White says playing catch is an ice breaker, a way to get her students to relax their bodies and loosen their tongues. But it’s also a metaphor – tossing the balls back and forth mimics the rhythm of conversation and the importance of give and take. She doesn’t want any monologues here.
MERCER-WHITE: So even when you’re throwing it, another could be coming at you. Like talking with a bunch of friends in a crowd.
Next on the agenda: workplace banter. A woman in her early 30s named Paulette says she has trouble making conversation with people in her office elevator.
PAULETTE: Why is it sometimes easy and sometimes it’s awkward?
One of the other attendees – a man named Richard – chimes in to offer what works for him.
RICHARD: So far my answer to that is a combination of body language and attitude. When somebody comes into an elevator, and they’re looking down, or not making eye contact, they have a glower on their face, I feel that’s somebody who wants to be left alone. When somebody comes in, smiling they’re very friendly.
It all seems simple enough. But experts say the inability to perform these basic communication skills can prevent individuals with Asperger’s from getting and keeping jobs, forming friendships, falling in love and living on their own. Michelle Gorenstein-Holtzman is a psychologist who specializes in treating people on the autism spectrum.
GORENSTEIN-HOLTZMAN: We do see increased levels of depression and anxiety in the population. So allowing a place for these individuals where they can go and socialize and teach these skills is really important for their quality of life.
And yet, as concrete as these classes at Adaptations are, Gorenstein-Holtzman says studies of children with Aspergers found that it’s tough for them to use the skills they learn in workshops back in their regular lives.
GORENSTEIN-HOLTZMAN: The biggest downfall in all social skills research has been the generalization aspect. So if a child is learning a social skill in a clinic room and they are doing really well … they might not use that skill on the playground.
For his part, Anton – the 27 year old who just wants to talk about game shows – simply wants to keep the conversation going.
Jessica Gould, Columbia Radio News