by Daniella Bruce
Lansing Star Staff Reporter
Autism experts in the Lansing area are working to provide more social opportunities for people on the autism/Asperger spectrum.
“Autism has been this sort of mystery term and mystery condition,” said Mary Sharp of the Mid-Michigan Autism Association. “In the last 25 years, the amount of professional literature regarding autism has just exploded.”
Sharp said the goal of the volunteer-based Mid-Michigan Autism Association is not to fight about methodology but to increase opportunity for local autistic people.
“We want the kids to have an understanding that they have a right to be in society,” Sharp said. “The actual integration of autistic kids into social environments is what we’re working on now.”
Sharp described many different social programs that are being developed in the Lansing area for autistic children. These programs include: Drum Circle, the 4th Wall theater collaboration and social coaching.
“We have tried to publicize the idea that autism does not have to be a tragedy. This is not a black box,” Sharp said. “We actually know a lot about what is going on with autism now.”
The value of social coaching
Retired special educator Bob Steinkamp started a program called ASPPIRE offering social coaching for people on the spectrum.
“Our program is for people ages 18 to 26,” Steinkamp said. “In Michigan every intermediate school district has a program for autistic children, but there wasn’t much for seniors to go onto if they weren’t ready.”
Steinkamp described the program as “self directed” and “highly structured,” since structure and predictability appeal to people with this condition.
“We provide a facilitator, but we are not teaching,” Steinkamp said. “We lead a discussion, but we want our participants to do most of the talking.”
I was able to sit in on one of the social coaching classes, which was facilitated by Sara Dodson, who has a degree in cognitive impairment from Eastern Michigan University.
Dodson started the meeting by passing out an agenda. “Each participant gets an agenda every night,” Steinkamp said. “It’s comforting for them to know what they will be doing.”
Participants took a True Color Personality Test and a Multiple Intelligence Quiz.
“Tests like this are very useful,” Dodson said.“ It helps participants realize what their strengths and weaknesses are and gives them the boost of confidence they need.”
Steinkamp said the main goal of social coaching is to help people with autism accomplish what they want to do in life.
“Many of their goals are simple. It’s just hard for them to build relationships with other people,” Steinkamp said. “We give them an opportunity to talk to each other. It’s their common bond.”
According to Steinkamp, the social coaching program currently consists of 40 people divided carefully into groups designed to be supportive. The various groups meet in different locations throughout the Lansing area.
“Location is very important to us,” Steinkamp said. “The location has to be where there are people. You can’t teach social skills in a vacuum, we like public places with a private room to meet.”
Steinkamp said some of the locations include the library in downtown Lansing, the Delta Township Library and the Hope Network Rehab Facility.
“Libraries are great,” Steinkamp said. “The participants are forced to interact with other people.”
From my experience, I could tell people had made friends with one another and felt comfortable.
“It’s the little things that are most noticeable,” Dodson said. “One participant used to go a whole meeting without saying a word; now she participates in every activity.”
Steinkamp and Dodson said the results of social coaching have been great.
“Part of the program is that the facilitators are responsible to provide summaries of the meetings to parents and psychologists,” Steinkamp said. “We keep in contact with them about the results.”