Friendship Clubs Provide Safe Environment for Autistic Children to Practice Social Skills

News Sentinel, September 4, 2012 | Go to article overview

Friendship Clubs Provide Safe Environment for Autistic Children to Practice Social Skills


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. …

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