Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Social Skills Programs Working for Teenagers!

Class at Vernon Hills High School teaches social skills, stress management

Part of Erron Gerstein's socialization lesson includes learning polite conversation. Erron, who has autism, is enrolled in Vernon Hills High School's "Tutorial: A Program for Independence," which is targeted to students on the autism spectrum. (Michael Tercha, Chicago Tribune / May 14, 2012)
By Amy Alderman, Chicago Tribune reporter
May 16, 2012
Making connections can be a challenge for many teens, but it has been especially tough for Erron Gerstein, an 18-year-old student with autism at Vernon Hills High School.
Although he wanted to socialize with other students, simply approaching them was often daunting.
But Erron has become more bold since he enrolled in "Tutorial: A Program for Independence," a new class offering this school year.
"Starting a conversation — it was hard," he said. Tutorial instructors "teach me how to take the initiative or make a conversation. I get to be around people I enjoy."
The program, created to address the increased enrollment of students with autistic spectrum disorders in the past five years, is designed to help the youths better interact socially and be better prepared for life after graduation. Erron is one of five students who meet with a case manager the first and last period of every school day to work on social skills and develop stress management techniques.
The students learn time-management and organizational skills to help them break down large assignments. They also role-play, which helps expand their social awareness by making eye contact, asking questions and acknowledging statements, program administrators say.
Often, the students rate their mornings, afternoons and weekends on a scale of "dreadful" to "perfect" as a way of processing the events of a full school day, special services teacher Rebeca Garcia said.
The program can be a stepping stone to college or to a transition program such as the Special Education District of Lake County, where they learn independent living and job skills, said Robin Myerberg, special services supervisor at Vernon Hills High School.
Experts say programs like Tutorial are springing up in high schools throughout Illinois to address students who will age out of public high schools.
Mary Kay Betz, executive director of the Autism Society of Illinois, said students diagnosed with an autism disorder need transitional programs to help integrate them into their communities.
"There's definitely a need for it and definitely increased awareness within our school districts," Betz said.
But the success rate of such programs has been mixed, she said. "There really is no best practice yet."
Some programs ask students to achieve certain goals or participate in activities that don't suit their personalities.
"You take the program and fit it around the child," Betz said. "No program is a one-size-fits-all."
Christian Eric Straube, a psychologist who specializes in counseling people on the autism spectrum, agrees programs such as Tutorial are helpful as long as the skills and techniques students learn extend out of the classroom.
"It would make sense to practice in multiple settings. A child on the spectrum — they're so concrete in the way they think," Straube said.
"They might know a skill, but they might not know how to transfer that to a job or a restaurant."
Tutorial students are encouraged to participate in after-school activities with regular education students who volunteer as mentors. The volunteers model appropriate behaviors to help the students with autism work on their social skills. It helps teach them how to behave as part of a group, Myerberg said.
"A lot of times they go home after school and they're just at home without any community involvement — without their peers. This way, they're able to go to school activities with their peers, just like everybody else," she said.
Many of the students have become much more independent since Tutorial began, said Garcia, the special services teacher.

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