Peter H Brown Clinical Psychologist

Psychology News & Resources

‘Quirky Yes,Hopeless No’:Making Quirky Cool & Helping Kids With Aspergers Learn Social Skills

By PATRICIA MORRIS BUCKLEY – For the North County Times | Posted: March 17, 2010

Beth Wagner Brust knows there are few things more difficult than watching your child struggle to make friends. Her youngest son, Ben, was diagnosed with ADHD in kindergarten, but by third grade he still didn’t have any friends.

“My pediatrician said he had Asperger’s,” explained Brust, a Carmel Valley resident. Asperger’s is considered a higher form of autism that makes social interaction, among other things, difficult. “Like any parent, I was thrown for a loop. Then I heard about the Friends Club in Carlsbad.”

The Friends Club is a safe, non-threatening and non-stressful environment where kids with Asperger’s get together to learn the “unwritten” social skills. Now it’s inspired Brust and Cynthia La Brie Norall, Ph.D., to write “Quirky, Yes — Hopeless, No: Practical Tips to Help Your Child with Asperger’s Syndrome Be More Socially Accepted” (St. Martin’s Griffin).

Asperger’s children are often the kids who are bullied, sit alone at lunch and rarely get an invitation to a birthday party. But at the club, they learn such skills as making eye contact, greeting people, letting others talk about their interests and being less rigid through games, breaking skills into baby steps and role playing.

By learning the subtle social cues that typical children take for granted, they can begin making friends. And that’s exactly what happened with Ben.

“By the end of the first year, I heard him ask another kid, ‘Am I boring you?’ and I almost fell over,” recalled Brust. “I’d never heard him say that before. It was amazing to see that growth in six months.”

The Friends Club was the brainchild of Norall, an educational behavior psychologist. While working at a preschool in Valley Center in 1992, she first encountered children with autism. That’s around the time that autism diagnoses began to rise dramatically. Today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 out of every 100 8-year-olds is autistic.

“I just found this population fascinating,” Norall said. “I went to every seminar and conference I could on autism. I really wanted to help them.”

In 1999, she opened her own practice, Comprehensive Autism Services and Education (CASE). A year later, she started the Friends Club when her mentor, Dr. B.J. Freeman, a child psychologist who founded the Autism Clinic at UCLA, suggested that she do something to help those higher on the autistic spectrum.

The Friends Club broke the commonly held professional belief that social groups should also contain typical children.

“I got a lot of negative criticism over that decision,” she said. “But these kids know that they are different and if I brought in typical kids, the Aspies (kids with Asperger’s) would stand out. They needed a place to connect.”

Norall likes to tell the story of a teenage girl on her first time at Friends Club who said, “Well, Cynthia, it’s about time you put this together for my species.”

Nine years later, thousands of Aspies have been through the Friends Club. In addition to the branch in Carlsbad, there are Friends Club satellites in Napa, Vancouver, Canada and Oahu, Hawaii, and also a camp during the summer. Twenty-two groups have approximately 150 kids. Groups are broken into age categories; from very young (age 3 to 7), to tweeners, teens and young adults. Norall’s staff now numbers 50, a few of whom are Friends Club graduates. Each group contains six kids and two leaders.

Parents, amazed at the results, kept encouraging Norall to write a book. With that goal in mind, she’d kept extensive summaries of each activity as a report for the parents, but also to remind herself what the kids had taught her. Still, it took Brust, a children’s author herself, to persuade Norall to really get writing.

They decided they wanted the book, originally titled “Decoding Your Asperger’s Children: Lessons Learned at the Friends Club,” to be a practical parenting guide rather than a book on what Asperger’s is or how to “cure it.”

The book is organized alphabetically by topic, such as cooperation, discipline, bullying, perfectionism, anxiety or meltdowns. The lessons teach “people skills,” including how to greet others, how to make eye contact, how to pay compliments, how to cooperate and ask for help and how not to be rude.

Ultimately, Norall and Brust wanted their readers to understand how the Aspie’s brain is wired differently. Then they can not only help the youngsters, but also be less frustrated overall and enjoy the differences these kids bring to the world.

“We wanted a book that had no jargon, but written in a conversational tone like Dr. Spock,” said Brust. “We also wanted readers to be able to skip around in it. There’s always a ‘trouble du jour,’ and you can read just about that. Parents of special needs kids have no time and it doesn’t take a big time commitment to read this book. We’ve made it as accessible as possible.”

The finished manuscript quickly sold to mainstream publisher St. Martin’s Griffin. “Quirky, Yes — Hopeless, No” hit stores in August. Alyse Diamond, the book’s editor, believes there’s nothing like it in a market filled with technical books by doctors or memoirs by mothers.

“What gripped me was that this wasn’t just another book written by a doctor,” said Diamond. “The co-writer is a mom and she’s been in the trenches with her son, so together they bring a unique perspective that you don’t normally see. More and more kids are being diagnosed with autism every year. It’s not going away. That’s why it’s important to us to get a book like this in the hands of people who need it.”

Reaction to the book has been highly positive. Publisher’s Weekly said, “Although a dozen or more experts are cited, the book is conversational in tone, full of insights and will help and encourage parents and their Aspie or high-functioning autistic kids alike.”

Temple Grandin, the author of “Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships” and “Thinking in Pictures,” and perhaps the most famous person with autism, said in her review, “This is a fantastic book for helping people on the autism spectrum learn social skills. Great for individuals on the spectrum, teachers, and social skills training specialists.”

While good reviews from major publications and notable names in the autism field are welcome, the ones that mean the most to Norall and Brust are those from parents and professionals who work with the children.

“I want everyone to read this book so that the teasing will stop,” said Brust. “These kids can be creative and fun. I love being around Ben because he thinks differently. But that can also be frustrating because we don’t understand how they think.”

The good news is that Ben, now a senior at Canyon Crest High School, is doing so well that he plans to attend community college soon. While he just stopped going to Friends Club, Brust sees the lasting value of what he learned there and hopes that people who read their book will experience some of the same social connections he’s had.

“This book is about helping Aspie kids navigate the world better,” Brust said. “Every chapter has something specific and concrete that parents can do to make a difference. Our goal is to help as many of these kids as possible.”

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March 18, 2010 - Posted by | Aspergers, Aspergers Syndrome, Autism, Bullying, Child Behavior, Education, Parenting, Resilience, Social Justice, therapy | , , , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. Very informational i have to say. We need to spread this awareness right from our home. Thanks for your inspiring thought.

    Comment by Henry Brown | January 22, 2011 | Reply


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