The Autism Society Philippines (ASP) is a national, non-profit organization dedicated to the well-being of persons with autism spectrum disorder. The ASP has been in the forefront of providing services and training to families living with autism.

08 June 2010

Making friends via autism demystification

By Dang U. Koe, ASP Chair Emeritus


Special eyewears were distributed during seminar so participants can see how some PWAs see things.



Making friends is a big challenge for children and teens with autism.

JR Tan and Bryan Lu, then in grade school in 2004, were coping well with academic requirements.

But they did not have friends.

Their mothers, Tiffany and Babsy, with the help of SpEd teacher Aileen Mercado, met and decided to form SPARKS — Special Partners on Autism for Recreation, Knowledge and Socialization.

“Special partners” do not refer only to teens with autism like JR and Bryan. It also refers to other typically developing children/teens who were invited to join social activities with the likes of JR and Bryan.

“Autism is more of a social communication disorder,” said Heather McCracken, founder and executive director of the Friend 2 Friend Social Learning Society based in Vancouver, BC. The associated characteristics of autism, specifically impaired social interaction, difficulties in both verbal and non-verbal communication, and unusual or restricted repertoire of interests and activities, makes it a big challenge for those affected to form social relationships.

In autism demystification seminar-workshops she had conducted, McCracken pointed out that all children, regardless of their unique challenges and gifts, have intrinsic need to play and make friends, even though those with autism express this need differently.

In order to foster mutual friendships between children/teens affected by autism and their typically developing peers and siblings, McCracken recommends autism demystification.

Angels Talk interviewed one of the country’s leading occupational therapists Anthony S. Grecia. He recently attended the autism demystification seminar-workshop in Vancouver, and was invited by Autism Society Philippines last May to conduct a seminar on “Fostering Social Inclusion and Mutual Friendship between Children with ASD and their Peers, Siblings and Classmates.”

Teacher Anthony is program director of the three branches of Center for Goals Inc. (Alabang, Caloocan & Bonifacio Global City) and is a founding member of Therapy Centers’ Movement (TCM).

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WHAT IS AUTISM DEMYSTIFICATION?

Heather McCracken developed autism demystification programs out of necessity for her son, who did not have friends when he was younger. Considering the need for friendship of children like hers, McCracken founded the Friend to Friend Social Learning Society (F2F), which has one mandate: “to foster mutual friendships between children on the autism spectrum (CWA) and their peers, siblings, and classmates.” To meet their mandate, F2F developed and delivered autism demystification and educational programs for children/teens aged 3-18 years old.

However, upon experiencing the programs, I realized that the demystification programs could also be used for parents, teachers, therapists, clinicians, and the general community that make significant impact to CWA’s life. The programs basically focus on respecting everyone’s affinities (gifts) and challenges (disabilities).

WHAT ARE THE F2F AUTISM DEMYSTIFICATION GUIDELINES?

1) Autism demystification begins by supporting the CWA to understand and accept her own unique challenges and gifts.

2) Autism demystification programs for peers should include the CWA.

3) Autism demystification should be delivered in a sensitive, age-appropriate, fun and interactive way.

4) Autism demystification should never “single out” the CWA, nor should the child’s name, diagnosis, or any personal information be discussed.

5) Autism demystification should always include examples of other individuals with autism or role-playing to help generalize characteristics of autism, which supports the understanding and acceptance of these characteristics.

6) Autism demystification should use sensitive language and encourage a shared vocabulary, such as “I have the kind of mind..”, “We are all different in our own way,” and “This is my stim (self-stimulatory behaviors), what’s yours?”

7) Autism demystification should be direct and honest, respecting individuality, diversity and privacy.

CAN YOU GIVE US SOME BASIC FRIENDSHIP TIPS?

A core part of the demystification programs is teaching typically developing peers prosocial/helping behaviors and communication strategies to enhance social interaction between them and CWA. Such behaviors are the following:

1) Get your friend’s attention; move closer and say your friends name before you start to speak.

2) Use small sentences and gestures, like pointing, to help your friend understand you. Then wait to give your friend time to answer you.

3) Watch your friend to learn the things he or she likes to do.

4) When asking your friend to play, give choices among the things you know he or she likes to do.

5) Ask your friend to talk, by asking questions like, “What do you like to play or do?”

6) Use friendly words when speaking to your friend, like “good job” or “give me five”.

7) Everybody is different in his or her own way. Being a good friend means accepting differences.

WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF AUTISM DEMYSTIFICATION?

The F2F programs have been “kid tested” for a decade with over 100,000 children, as pointed out by McCracken. The identified benefits for children with ASD are decreased anxiety and stress, increased interests and play skills, increased communication skills, increased self confidence, fun and friendships.

On the other hand, the identified benefits for peers, siblings and classmates are their sense of pride in helping others, better understanding/appreciation of diversity, increased self-confidence, better communication/leadership skills, fun and friendships.

Where and how long can the demystification be done?

The demystification programs can be conducted in a group of 20-50 participants, or 1-2 classes.

Each plan is implemented for 45 minutes to an hour. The demystification may require two to three visits.

HOW IS THE DEMYSTIFICATION CONDUCTED?

Autism demystification programs varies according to age group. This is to make sure that autism is understood in a sensitive, fun and age-appropriate manner.

That’s What’s Different About Me program is for 3-10 years old. Activities include puppet play, children’s coloring books, puppet role-playing, seven basic friendship tips art project, finger print art, social clubs, puppet journals and class discussions.

Demystifying Autism: The Friend to Friend Simulation Game Program for 11-18 years old. This program’s activities are simulation games (like Simon Says), autism friendship bingo, watching movies/TV shows (e.g. Mercury Rising, Rain Man, Molly, The Boy Inside, Autism The Musical).


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Teacher Anthony said that after studying and going through a demystifying autism experience, he thinks it is a mission and a calling to educate children and younger people about autism. And that it is a challenge to respond to the desire of children/teens with autism to make friends.

“Lack of social skills among youngsters with autism should never be confused with a lack of desire,” McCracken emphasized.

So let’s make friends with them.

Autism Society Philippines will hold its monthly family support group meeting on June 19, starting 1 p.m. Facilitator is ASP Secretary Tiffany Tan, a mother of a teener with autism.

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