Monday, April 6, 2009

Socializing gets easier for people with autism, Asperger's

By CHELSI MOY of the Missoulian

Molly Black's laugh is contagious, rumbling up from the diaphragm. But it comes from the heart.

The 22-year-old loves the TV series “Gilmore Girls,” cookie dough ice cream and Broadway musicals, specifically “Chicago.”

Her heart lies in the hotel business, and she dreams of one day climbing her way to the top - from the laundry room at the Holiday Inn in Missoula where she works.

Then there's Barclay Nickel, a 23-year-old who, when he's not power lifting, enjoys learning how to conduct music.

Chris Cragwick, 21, not only has an amazing gift of memory, he has written a science fiction novel that he intends to self-publish.

While these individuals are all very different, they share a common bond. All are autistic or have Asperger's Syndrome. To some extent, their accomplishments and interests may go unnoticed by people outside their immediate social circles - a result of the impaired social interaction and communication that characterize both conditions - but they are celebrated here: at the Neuro-Networking Club.

Twice a month, young adults who live with autism or Asperger's get together at Treva Bittinger's home in the University District to watch movies, play games, eat pizza, and most of all, to laugh. It's a place where friendship is not taken for granted. Everyone is welcome. Everyone is included. And no one is judged.

The Neuro-Networking Club formed 11 months ago thanks to the establishment of another relatively new group: the University of Montana Psychology Club.

Bittinger - whose 28-year-old son Ben is autistic - is president of the UM Psychology Club and was instrumental in helping to establish a club for young adults with autism and Asperger's. She knew firsthand the need for the group.

For Ben, growing up in Corvallis wasn't always easy, especially for a kid who lost his hair at age 8 because of stress. Little was known about autism back then, Bittinger said. Still, Ben always had friends. He got along with the other kids in his class, was included in classroom projects, and even went to prom, Bittinger said.

“The best part of school for him was the friends that he made,” she said. “It's what motivated him to go to school.”

After high school, Ben, like many young adults with autism and Asperger's, watched friends leave for college or move away. Ben, however, can't leave the house unsupervised, not even to walk across the street.

Living in the country was not an ideal situation for making new friends, so the Bittinger family moved to Missoula. For two hours a day, twice a day, Bittinger would pay college students to stop by the house and hang out with Ben. And while a couple of the students now drop by just because they enjoy Ben's company, “he can't call them at any hour and ask that they come over,” she said. “Everyone likes to have friends they can just hang out with.”

Autism makes it difficult to read social messages, said Suzanne Sterrett, program coordinator for the Child Development Center. Metaphors, similes and, to some extent, slang are often misinterpreted by people with autism and Asperger's, who don't pick up on social nuances.

Even facial expressions are tricky, she said. For these reasons, it's difficult for a person with autism or Asperger's to easily make new and lasting friendships.

When kids with autism attend public school, they are constantly interacting with their peers. The school system provides parents with resources if they feel their child needs more support or social interaction. They can ask the school to include their child in more activities.

After graduation, those resources no longer exist.

“A parent can't go to their employer and say it's time for you to include my child in after-work social outings,” Sterrett said.

That's where the Neuro-Networking Club comes in.

On Wednesday, Ben was so eager to have fellow Neuro-Networking Club member Nickel sleep over, he began peppering him with questions only a minute after he walked through the door.

“Barclay, do you want to spend the night Saturday?” he asked.

“Barclay, what about Friday? Do you want to spend the night Friday?”

His persistence paid off. “We'll have to see,” Barclay finally replied, hesitant to agree to something before looking at his calendar.

Through word-of-mouth and by Bittinger calling parents of young adults with autism or Asperger's Syndrome, the club was formed.

They go to Splash Mountain. They have barbecues and picnics in the park.

Laura Olsonoski, a 21-year-old rugby player from Minnesota, is a member of the UM Psychology Club and helps organize the Neuro-Networking Club's field trips.

The psychology student's interaction with these young adults has inspired Olsonoski to focus her graduate studies in the area of autism and Asperger's.

“People have a very different idea of what actually goes on,” she said. “People think noncommunicative and violent. They think of it as baby-sitting, but it's not. It's fun.”

The Neuro-Networking Club is just one of two primary missions of the UM Psychology Club. The other is working with residents at J's House, an assisted living facility in Missoula for people diagnosed with severe mental illness.

This coming weekend, on April 11, the UM Psychology Club is sponsoring a Spring Hullabaloo, an event to raise awareness about autism. It's free and open to the public and will include an art auction, face painting and carnival games.

Bittinger hopes to spread the word about the Neuro-Networking Club and encourage more to participate. If enough come together, the group can act as a single voice for people with autism and Asperger's, said Sterrett, the Child Development Center coordinator.

They can help speak for those who cannot, she said. “It'll empower them.”


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