In beautiful North Carolina, in the Blue Ridge mountain range, Laura McManus works with teenage girls. She, like many of the staff involved with Aspen Education programs, arrived at this position through a series of experiences that demonstrate her dedication to challenged children. She graduated with a degree in psychology from Western Washington, and an MA in Special Education.

After three years of summer camp counseling, Laura created a program catering to the needs of campers with Asperger’s Syndrome and autism. She managed this program, called “Sight”, each summer for four years. Laura also worked at Stone Mountain School, a boy’s boarding school, as a one-on-one advocate for students with special needs. Her classroom experience extends to the public school sector in which she taught a self-contained class for children with autism for two years. She says she has always been drawn to working with children and teens with Asperger’s and autism.

The “Sight” program, started in 2001, and uses outdoor activities including tree climbing, hiking, whitewater rafting, rock climbing and other activities to encourage children and teens with Asperger’s Syndrome to stretch their limits in exciting ways. The program also puts them with eight to ten other students in a group for two weeks, and focuses on teaching them healthy ways to handle conflict, and how to interact in an age-appropriate way.

The program successfully uses a group process to handle conflict. At any time, any member of the group can call, “Group!” if that member feels there is an issue that needs to be addressed. A child may say, for example, “I have an issue with ‘John’ for calling me a name, or ‘disrespect’ (a recognized issue).” ‘John’ would then need to reply in a format that the children practice that demonstrates that he takes responsibility for his actions and has resolved to change his behavior, stating what he would do differently next time. “I take responsibility for calling you a name and I’ll take a time out next time when I feel frustrated.” If the non-adaptive behavior continues, the counselors will use a natural, or a logical consequence. For Instance, if a camper has trouble respecting other people, then that camper will need to do something kind for the person or people who he or she has offended, and write them an apology. Laura notes that while it takes some time at the beginning for children and teens with Asperger’s to learn this system, they can adapt to a very structured process quickly and well. Because this behavior process is so systematic and so structured, and that appeals to people with Asperger’s, they can get used to it in a few days.

The counselors help the campers to develop better social skills through activities ranging from initiative games focusing on team work, to working together spontaneously in a white water raft trip. Counselors may intervene to encourage social interaction between campers. For Instance, they may notice that two campers share a common interest, and introduce a conversation between the two. “I notice both of you like to talk about Pokemon – why don’t you talk to each other.” The passions are often the same, and the conversations enable the campers to discover that they are not the only ones with passions, or even strongly felt dislikes, such as objections to tags in their clothes. The process of semi-structured socializing helps the children and teens with Asperger’s learn to make friends more easily, especially when they get to upper middle school and high school, including helping them to know the appropriate things to talk about, or not talk about.

Asked what are the biggest social challenges for children and teens with Asperger’s, Laura stated that learning to pick age-appropriate topics for conversation was very important. Many people with Asperger’s take things very literally. For teenagers, this may mean that it becomes difficult for them to follow a lot of what other teens talk about. They may not understand social banter, and so they become easy targets for bullying. Other teens may get them in trouble because the teens with Asperger’s, while often bright in some subjects, are gullible when it comes to social behavior. They have passions, certain things that they focus on, but they may have a hard time talking about anything else, and their difficulties reading social cues cause them to irritate other teens.

Their difficulties in reading social cues range from trouble understanding the zones of personal space, causing them to stand too close to others, to a lack of basic conversation skills. Conversation skills are hard to teach, too. For example, some teens with Asperger’s learn that they have to ask a question to start a conversation, but then, instead of listening to the answer, they ask question after question, in effect drilling the other student, and making them feel uncomfortable. Helping the teens with Asperger’s to get over these barriers is part of Laura’s work. In some cases, this involves intensive work teaching the teens what is appropriate to say, and what isn’t. In other cases, it involves learning to take turns in conversation, and helping students recognize when they have talked long enough about a particular subject. Laura helps them to say to themselves, “Now I have talked long enough about this, I should let someone else talk about their subject.” She also teaches them how to recognize other kinds of social boundaries, including more physical ones. “Put your arm out,” she tells them. “That’s how far you need to be away from me.”

Perseverating behaviors are another issue. Laura describes the way they present in children and teens with Asperger’s. “For some of the kids with high functioning autism and Asperger’s, it can be a physical perseveration – for Instance, they have to do something with their body constantly, like tapping their foot, moving their body, Or they may be focused with intensity on one thing over a long period of time. They may have a hard time stopping in the middle of an activity, and get angry if they are interrupted. This can lead to having a hard time sharing time and taking turns.” The programs Laura works with have techniques for helping these children and teens to learn to read other people’s emotions. Recognizing and acknowledging the feelings of others can be a difficult task for people with Asperger’s, so Laura often uses a technique that lets them compare the way they felt when something frustrated them or made them upset or angry, with the way others feel, and she models it for them. For example she might say, “Remember when I made you stop playing that game? It made you mad. Well, now I feel mad when you do this ____.” It can make a big impact, she says, especially when a student realizes that their actions can negatively impact someone else. Perseverating behaviors also happen at home and can make parents upset. Often times the children and teens with Asperger’s need help to realize the impact their actions have on their parents, and that their parents have feelings, too.

Sometimes residential schools and camps can help teens with Asperger’s. It is often difficult for a family to think about a residential school for their child, and often they are concerned about the effect of any kind of change on a teenager with Asperger’s. But a residential school can help some teens to be more organized on their own, and to learn how to cope better with social situations. Going home and playing computer games, and thus escaping social interaction is not an option at residential schools, where students are thrust into a social situation. Parents may have more difficulty pushing their children to try new activities, when their children insist that playing computer games is all they want to do. At residential schools and camps, new activities abound, and everyone is trying them.

Parents stay aware of how their child is doing both through regular phone calls and letters, and counselors at these programs. Parents stay involved with supervision when the students are at home, so that progress with improving behavior can be sustained.

All the programs that Laura works with and has worked with in the past are familiar with the range of behaviors that characterize Asperger’s syndrome, both the challenges, and the strengths. The challenges include needing strict routines and not wanting to change, compulsive behaviors at times, perseveration, and anger management problems for some children. But the strengths are there as well, a gift to both the students, and those who work with them. Laura was in a workshop with Tony Atwood, an expert on Asperger’s. “He said, you will find students with Asperger’s in the library, in architecture, in math, and in chemistry and the other sciences. They may be excellent writers or have a great musical talent.” Laura says that she worked with one girl who was a chess champion from Texas. “They can have so much knowledge about a subject, and their attention to detail and rote memory capacity is excellent. They can be really funny, which helps in social situations, if they develop a passion for collecting jokes. Some kids can be really good with animals.” The programs recognize these challenges and strengths, and work with them. For example, the equine program at the summer camp where Laura works builds on the students’ appreciation for animals, and uses equine therapy to help the students with developing confidence. It may be scary for the some of the students at first to be around such big animals, but the program helps them learn how to behave safely and confidently with the horses. One of the students’ favorite activities at this camp is painting the horses with washable paint

Once students have successfully completed high school, many with Asperger’s go on to college programs where they can use their many gifts to achieve degrees that let them go on to jobs, and sometimes prominence, in their fields. Some extremely notable people are thought to have had Asperger’s, including Thomas Edison. Yet social success is equally important in college and in developing careers. Laura’s dream is to adequately prepare the young people she works with for the next steps in their lives. She hopes to continue developing programs that help these young people to manage their lives. “Practical steps, such as learning how to keep the dorm room clean, learning to budget, are important for success in college. I’d like to make sure all the students with Asperger’s that I work with can learn to cope well.”

Here are a few tips she offers for the college-bound student with Asperger’s:

1. Find five meals that you know how to cook and that you like – don’t rely on fast food restaurants for all your food
2. Learn how to budget, and learn what to do with your money.
3. Try to find a group of friends who would be good peers, those who would have a positive influence and also have similar interests.
4. Change your sheets once a week and do your laundry.
5. Get into a personal hygiene routine, and stick to it. It will help your social life!
           
This approach, like Laura’s work, with its positive attention to the practical details of coping with Asperger’s, along with the deep understanding of Asperger’s and its management that years of experience bring, exemplifies the work that Laura does. It also gives a good sample of what the residential programs she works with have to offer, and what parents can try to do at home to support those gifted, challenged, and challenging children and teens with Asperger’s that have so much to offer the world, once we help them unlock the doors to more successful social interaction.

This approach, like Laura’s work, with its positive attention to the practical details of coping with Asperger’s, along with the deep understanding of Asperger’s and its management that years of experience bring, exemplifies the work that Laura does. It also gives a good sample of what the residential programs she works with have to offer, and what parents can try to do at home to support those gifted, challenged, and challenging children and teens with Asperger’s that have so much to offer the world, once we help them unlock the doors to more successful social interaction.