Taking a Trip on the Friend Ship: A look at the Sarah’s Smile Asperger’s classroomBy Rob Harvey, team leader, KidsPeace Autism Services

Imagine approaching doors that look like the gaping mouth of an alligator.  As you step through the doors and cross the plank, alligators teeming in the waters below, you find yourself surrounded by the sails, masts and helm of a ship. The walls show the ocean around you and the horizon ahead, and a stage stands against the wall to perform various game shows and social skills challenges. A tree made of cardboard and colored paper reaches from the floor to the ceiling in the grassy, carpeted back area of the room where each day begins and ends.  

This is what greeted the children of the Asperger’s room (the “Alligators”) as they arrived for the first day of Sarah’s Smile ASD Day Camp this summer. This was my fourth year working with the Asperger’s classroom, and, each year, I try to use a different theme when decorating. This summer I completely tied the appearance of the classroom in with the curriculum I had developed for the children. And, thus, the “Friend Ship” was born.


Each Monday, we would set sail on a journey to a new land. Every child had an important assignment – to flicker the lights, to bang the pan to create thunder, to man the crow’s nest, to pilot the ship . . . everyone had a job in sailing to the next island. We traveled to lands such as Not-so-Stretchia and Real-Bad-Friend-Land over our six-week voyage, discovering how to be a better friend and Alligator.

Asperger’s is a diagnosis that falls under the umbrella of Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD), which also includes Autism Disorder and PDD, NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder, not otherwise specified). Children diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome generally do not exhibit the communication deficits associated with Autism, but have marked difficulties with social interaction, especially with peers. Often very intelligent, they respond very well to black and white facts and rules. Getting them to use their imaginations can sometimes be difficult, but it is a large focus of the curriculum used in the Alligator classroom.  Our group consists of about twenty children, mostly boys, between the ages of eight and thirteen.

To work on these deficits, we pinpoint different social skills, figure out what the challenges are and then practice the skills they should be using. This year, the Alligators learned about a new social skill difficulty on each island that we visited.  The first week we set our sails for the island of “Upsetallthetimea,” a land where the inhabitants were . . . well . . . upset all the time!  They began their journey by leaving the room to search for clues about where they had landed. On our search, we found the natives of the island (the teachers) acting out situations and behaviors that might be displayed by someone who has no coping skills and no frustration tolerance. Once we discovered what skill was lacking, we set out to talk about how we could help them and times that we have acted like an “Alwaysupsetian.” The week ended with the social skills challenge during which the Alligators took turns acting as the Social Skills “champion” and as the native of the island we were visiting. It was the champion’s mission to stop the native from making a social mistake, and to teach him the correct social skill. Whether the week’s native was an “Alwaysupsetian” or a “Novocalcontrolean,” the children acting as the natives got to demonstrate a negative behavior, and then they had to follow the correction of the social skills champion.

In addition to a social skill, each island also had a favorite sport and type of music.  Children diagnosed with Asperger’s are often unaware of or indifferent to the interests of their peers. By highlighting a sport and type of music each week, the children gained an understanding, and (at times) an appreciation of popular culture.  With this knowledge, they stand a better chance to interact appropriately with their typical peers in school and other social settings.

The curriculum included several game shows that the children could watch and participate in. One of the Alligators’ favorites was “Alligator Idol,” a game show designed to sneak coping skills development and emotion recognition in under the guise of a popular TV show. Each week we chose an emotion, and participants gained bonus reinforcement points by singing a song for the class in the target emotion. The whole class took part, whether they were contestants, playing a judge or just cheering along from the audience.  Everyone loved booing the ever-negative “Simon,” and awaited the accolades of “Paula.”  It was “Randy,” however, who had the final say on how many points they earned and how well they acted out the emotion.

“Boy Talk” was one of the most successful elements of the classroom this year.  In this weekly segment, we addressed a different topic that applies specifically to boys. We discussed being around other guys, talking about sports, interacting with girls and even dating. They all refused that they will ever date, but they listened very attentively all the same. These are skills that their typical peers are probably picking up naturally from their friends, the media and situations that go on around them. The Alligators, however, often benefit from having the facts and rules set out for them to look at and think about.

At the end of each day the Alligators were asked what their favorite part of the day was.  Often children would say “swimming” or “lunch,” but I was pleasantly surprised to hear that many of them had the most fun learning about the new islands and talking about different social skills. I consider the program to have been successful, if for no other reason than the children had fun and looked forward to coming back each day. The hope is that the skills and experiences that each child brought home will help them to improve their ability to live and thrive in their schools and communities.

 

Rob Harvey has worked for KidsPeace more than six years, all within the Autism Programs. He began with the BHRS program shortly after it began, working one-on-one with children with Autism. He has worked as the Head Team Leader of the Afterschool Autism Program since its founding in 2006, and has worked as the Lead TSS at the Sarah’s Smile camp since ‘06, as well.  In addition to his responsibilities for KidsPeace, Rob also runs a social skills group for children on the Autism Spectrum on Saturdays.