Learning How To Behave Properly In Public With Autism

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(Host) Adolescence can be a tough time, when friends divide into cliques and some kids feel left out. That’s especially true for teenagers with autism.

But in St. Johnsbury, a social club is creating new chances to break down social barriers and learn how to behave appropriately in public.

Earlier this week, VPR’s Charlotte Albright tagged along on their trick-or-treat stroll through town.

(Albright) The social club, based in a big, round brick building in the heart of St. Johnsbury, was started a few years ago by therapist Jeanne Metivier. She says the parents of her clients would sometimes break down in sobs because their children were being ostracized in school.

(Metivier) "Amongst all the other issues they might have been dealing with – their child might be having difficulty in school, or a difficult time being in public places, being appropriate – they realized how lonely their child was."

(Albright) So Metivier invited those families to join a club. They go bowling, try arts and crafts, even have bonfire parties. It started slowly at first, but it’s been growing. Metivier’s own son 17-year-old Sean, who has autism, has liked bringing in a few friends from St. Johnsbury Academy, and introducing them to his mom.

(Sean Metivier) "Everyone like [sic] her very much because my mother is very thoughtful and very nice and nice to kids from their people they have kids and oh, people have gone to Mom for her support group, for all problems, and things they have for life."

(Albright) That show of appreciation doesn’t always come naturally to people who have autism, which is a spectrum of brain disorders than can make it hard to empathize with others. But Sean has been acquiring those skills. And they were put to a test earlier this week, when he and three friends from the club donned scary costumes and went trick-or-treating -with scores of others–on the streets of St. Johnsbury.

(Cathy) "My name is Cathy and I am here because my grandson, who I have custody of, is going to go trick or treating."

(Albright) This grandmother who prefers to be identified only by her first name is happy to see her grandson Keith smiling as he hugs a backpack to his chest where he hopes to stash lots of candy.

(Cathy) "I think it’s wonderful because it’s a chance for kids who have a hard time socializing and knowing socially appropriate behavior to get together and have fun together and to learn how to socialize with each other."

(Albright) Keith is wearing safety glasses and hiked up trousers, imitating a nerdy guy from the TV show "Family Matters." His grandmother warns him not to run off, as he did on a previous outing at a county fair, and then entrusts him to therapist Jeanne Metivier and her husband and son. Two other girls show up-one dressed as a, quote, "dead vampire," and the other in everyday school clothes. They chat and giggle as they start their trick-or-treat stroll past the fire station, spotting a large man in an oversized dog costume.

As the social club members ring doorbells and collect their treats, therapist Jeanne Metivier is amazed at how well they avoid over-reacting to all the weird costumes and strange sounds, like recorded screams spilling from outdoor speakers. Other outings, she says, have produced more meltdowns, perhaps because they often include younger social club members who haven’t yet learned how to socialize as well as these teen-agers.

(Metivier) "If there’s ten, I’m checking in with all ten at different times, checking in making sure if someone’s not happy with something how do we find a way of resolving it so they know they can repair."

(Albright) Metivier says a tantrum can start from something as seemingly minor as an accidental shove. Many children with autism haven’t learned the language to say how they feel, or to apologize-or even to announce when they are about to leave the group. She figures that’s why some of the younger members stayed away on Halloween. But she hopes to see them return for the next outing, when they can learn from these older members how to have safe fun together.

For VPR News, I’m Charlotte Albright, in St. Johnsbury

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