Programs aim to help children develop social skills

Ten-year-old Alexander Berman ran toward his house in tears. On this particular day, the teasing and poking he endured on the school bus became too much for him. Without hitting anyone, he used his elbows to lash out at the children chiding him.

Berman, who has attention deficit disorder and processing difficulties, immediately told his mother what happened. His honesty, Lisa Berman said, is something that, in part, has developed thanks to the Social Thinking methods used at Camp Sequoia, a summer camp held at the Hill School in Pottstown, Pa., for children with social-cognitive challenges.

“He went to the principal on his own the next morning,” Lisa Berman said. “He apologized, whereas before, he may have stewed and stewed until one day, he may have just started swinging.”

Over the summer, Camp Sequoia offered her children – Berman’s other son Lee has high-functioning Asperger’s syndrome and is Alexander’s twin – a “safe haven,” where they could socialize without dealing with judgment, much like Alexander did on his bus.

But camp lasts less than a month.

“One of the things the parents started bringing up with me is that we needed to have something to do during the year,” Director of Sequoia Kids Ryan Wexelblatt said. “For a lot of our kids, initiating play dates doesn’t happen naturally.”

After parents began to express to Wexelblatt they noticed their children’s social skills improved while at camp but became somewhat stunted during the school year, Wexelblatt decided to expand his program. Based on the Main Line, where Wexelblatt lives in Narberth, the Sequoia Kids program will begin in December at the Rosemont School of the Holy Child in Bryn Mawr.

Geared toward children ages 8-14 who are bright but diagnosed with ADHD, a nonverbal learning disorder, Asperger’s syndrome or high-functioning autism, Sequoia Kids will pursue developing kids’ social skills outside of school where the atmosphere is less controlled.

“We’re in this area where the culture is very much about high academic achievement,” Wexelblatt said. “A lot of people put a lot of emphasis on that and figure as long as my kids are doing well academically, everything will work out. The reality is, a lot of these kids get to college, and they don’t last very long. This helps them learn to communicate socially.”

A key component, Wexelblatt added, will be utilizing the same Social Thinking methods used at camp to help kids understand why and when they’re wrong in certain situations.

Tali Perlman, mother to an 11-year-old boy dealing with a range of social perception deficits, said she’s looking forward to Sequoia Kids being held during the year because it reinforces the social skills her son is taught in the Lower Merion School District without the constraints of the classroom environment.

“Kids think school is fake,” Perlman said. “At camp, he was one of the guys afterward. When I got the notice about the Sequoia Kids winter program, I was elated. This helps the kids have an opportunity to socialize in a safe place outside of school.”

A supervisor for the autistic support programs for the Lower Merion School District, Chris Crawford said she encourages students and parents to apply the social skills taught in school to other settings.

“The main thing we work on is teaching perspective-taking,” Crawford said. “A lot of the children have an inability to understand the prospective of others, and it comes up most often during play activities or less-structured times.”

An educator working with the autistic spectrum for 26 years, Crawford said prior to the last 10 years there was little focus on developing social skills in schools.

“At the beginning of my career, we did not know how to teach social skills,” she said, adding that a large portion of developing the practice stems from the research done by Michelle Garica Winner to create the Social Thinking paradigm, the same methodology used at Sequoia Kids.

Another more recent development is the number of community-based programs beginning to form to help children develop social skills, Crawford said. In its inaugural year, Sequoia Kids will join St. Joseph’s University’s twice-yearly social skills program run by the Kinney Center for Autism Education and Support.

The Spectrum, an after-school club through the Dragonfly Forest camp program, which aims to provide social activities, is also entering its first year at Haverford College. More play-based, the Spectrum at Haverford is run by interns from the college and surrounding area. Though its research focuses on children with autism, Program Director Sylvia van Meerten said it’s not exclusive to the diagnosis.

The Kinney Center also utilizes St. Joe’s undergraduate base. Students majoring in psychology, elementary education, special education or interdisciplinary health services can apply to work for the center and receive intense training before working with the kids, who must have autism to participate in the social skills program.

“Each program has its own uniqueness, which is good because it offers options to families,” Crawford said.

Van Meerten said children who are socially behind at school ages don’t always want to face the fact they’re not good at socializing.

“Just as adults aren’t going to anger management to deal with their issues, children might not want to face their own,” van Martin said, adding that low-anxiety social-skill learning environments are crucial to development. “It’s important kids learn from the social skills that come about naturally when there are teachable moments.”