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Chapel Haven's Focus on Social Communicative Competency For Students with Asperger's Syndrome Proving Effective
Program Uses Unique Curriculum and Assessment Tools to Help Adults with Asperger's Syndrome Lead Independent Lives

from Autism Spectrum News, Fall 2009

For Young Adults with Aspergers

A stumbling block for young adults with Asperger's Syndrome is often their inability to recognize nonverbal cues such as facial expressions and gestures or to navigate the social norms of conversation.

Chapel Haven's Asperger's Syndrome Adult Transition (ASAT) program, now in its fourth year, bridges that gap by focusing on social communicative competency as its overarching theme.

With the help of certified speech and language pathologists and staff trained in the complexities of Asperger's Syndrome, students in this unique, 24-month residential program learn critical skills such as how to interpret facial expressions and gestures, engage in reciprocal conversations and appreciate another person's point of view. The training ranges from practice in how to pick up the phone and make a social plan to using videotaping and role playing for practice job interviews. Students are coached in speech clarity, speed, phrasing, correct use of formal and informal language, figurative language and irony.

Then, with the help of staff, students practice these skills in "natural settings," such as learning how to speak up in a college level class or negotiating with a roommate. Along the way, their confidence grows.

"SCC groups have really helped me a lot," said Ariana Habib, 21, originally from New York and an ASAT graduate who is now part of the supported living program at Chapel Haven. "My eye contact has improved. I show interest in other people. I am more empathetic toward friends. I have improved in my ability to terminate conversations appropriately and initiate questions in conversations."

Ms. Habib is a freshman and a public health major at Southern Connecticut State University. When she first started taking classes at SCSU, she recalls that "I did not know how to add or drop a course. I took the wrong classes and did not know how ask for help from the Disability Resource Center. I did not know how to watch for cues, which professor I should pick who would be appropriate to my needs." Now, thanks to her training, "I am able to advocate for accommodations. I'm able to talk to my professors" and access resources like the campus writing center, the technology lab and career services.

Fran Dolan, parent of John Dolan, who graduated from the program last year and is now living in the New Haven community, said the social training has helped her son in many ways. She recalls that when he first started the program, he would enter conversations in social settings by asking the same question over and over– "do you like pizza?"

"He would have zero timing on that. It would be disconnected from anything going on and he would interrupt," she recalled. "As he has gained competence through the program at Chapel Haven, he has become confident enough to go up to a group, listen and comment on what is being said and his timing has improved."

The biggest change Ms. Dolan has seen in her son is his ability to initiate.

"Taking responsibility is really difficult for a lot of these kids," she said. "During John's younger years there were so many issues to focus on that when it came to making social plans (which John really wasn't interested in doing to begin with) I would handle all the arrangements. My goal at that time was to get John into social settings with peers so he would have role models. When John entered the ASAT program the skill of making social plans and everything connected with that - timely planning, making phone calls, compromising, budgeting and follow-through - had to be taught. We are thrilled with John's progress in this area."

John is enrolled for a second year at Southern Connecticut State University, and even more impressive, has taken the initiative to join in social activities with other students there. "The level of responsibility in a college class versus high school is so different, we were not sure he was going to be able to attend college," Ms. Dolan said. "Not only does he go to Southern and take classes, he joined an Anime club there, all on his own. We were thrilled that he went through the effort to do that, to take the bus on his own and join the club. He's very successful and he loves it." Developed in conjunction with the Yale Child Study Center in New Haven, Conn., Chapel Haven's ASAT program was guided by an advisory board comprising some of the top Asperger's experts in the country, including Fred R. Volkmar M.D., director of the Child Study Center at Yale University School of Medicine, and Ami Klin, Ph.D. director of the Autism Program also of the Child Study Center at Yale University. Dr. Ruth B. Eren, who chairs the special education department at Southern Connecticut State University, helped write the curriculum and is a key advisor, along with Michelle Garcia Winner, MA, CCC-SLP, who coined the term "social thinking" and developed the social thinking treatment approach for individuals with high-functioning autism, Asperger's and similar challenges.

Dr. Volkmar said the program's focus on teaching skills that can be practiced in real life settings is unique. "There are very few programs that focus on the needs of individuals with social disabilities," said Dr. Volkmar. "It is clear that lack of ‘real world' or adaptive skills is a major obstacle for many individuals being able to successfully make it on their own. Chapel Haven has a strong developmental focus with realistic expectations to hone in on these needs."

"Social communicative competency is the core of the disability for students with Asperger's," noted Virginia Hodge, director of Chapel Haven's ASAT program and a certified speech and language pathologist. "A student who can't cook dinner can still get take-out food. But a student who can't interact will see an effect in every part of his or her life."

Zach Delman, 25, is a graduate of Chapel Haven's ASAT program who now lives on his own with a roommate and participates in Chapel Haven's supported living program. For the past 1.5 years, he has worked as a pollster at Quinnipiac University's famed Quinnipiac Polling Institute. The instruction he gained at Chapel Haven has helped him in many ways, his mother said.

"We just see such a change in him," said Danae Delman, of Alexandria, VA. "Ginny has taught him to listen and even if he is not engaged, give facial expressions indicating that he is listening. Whereas before he would just walk away, he can sit at the table now at Thanksgiving and Christmas, where there are 20 people at a table, and engage in conversation."

Increased confidence and self esteem has helped Zach live an independent life. "He goes to his doctor's appointments by himself. He knows the New Haven transportation system better than some people who have lived there a long time, which again, goes back to self confidence. He can get anywhere he wants to," his mother said.

To measure a student's progress, Chapel Haven uses an assessment tool created in-house that measures dozens of variables in the four domains: social communicative competency, self determination, independent living skills and career and vocational preparation. The assessment tool is highly detailed. In just the SCC component alone, staffers use 50 different criteria to measure student growth, ranging from "states the main idea of presented explanations" to "initiates conversation by using appropriate nonverbal and verbal communication." For each criterion, student progress is tracked in four settings: the social realm, the apartment, out in the community and employment or college. The assessment tool helps staff at Chapel Haven establish baseline data and then continue to measure progress throughout the 24 month program in regular meetings with staff, student and parents, at 45 days, six months, one year, 18 months and two years.

Along with Social Communicative Competency, Chapel Haven's ASAT Program also teaches: Self Determination - an individual's awareness of personal strengths and weaknesses, the ability to set goals and make choices, to be assertive at appropriate times and to interact with others in a socially competent manner. These skills are taught by aiding the student in identifying his/her own emotions, needs, interests, and values as well as developing an understanding of his/her strengths and challenges. Instruction in this area of the curriculum also teaches the student to expect to achieve personal goals, to have feelings of self-respect and confidence, and to develop a belief in his/her ability to be successful. Time is spent on developing one's ability to assertively state one's own wants, needs, and rights as well as determining, pursuing, obtaining and evaluating needed supports. This area of the curriculum teaches coping skills so that the student can complete tasks, and consequently compare his performance on those tasks to an established performance measure. As important as the coping skills are the skills to set personal and achievable goals and the measure to achieve those goals. Independent Living Skills - those skills that allow individuals to deal with current and future adult day-to-day demands and responsibilities. This portion of the curriculum focuses on:

(1) survival skills, including use of the telephone, financial management, grooming, preparing nutritionally appropriate meals and traveling independently;
(2) leisure pursuits, including identifying and engaging in at-home and community based leisure activities, both alone and in groups;
(3) managing basic home responsibilities, including setting up personal living space, apartment cleaning, security measures, successfully doing laundry and home repairs;
(4) maintaining a structured, nurturing home environment while becoming involved in the community. Career|Vocational|College Preparation

The emphasis in this part of the curriculum is on identifying the life goals of the participant and then supporting the acquisition of skills necessary to be successful. These skills might be acquired in college, technical school, in the community, or at the worksite.

Chapel Haven's program is centered in a self-contained apartment building, housing each participant in a private bedroom. Weekly house meetings are held to address domestic responsibilities, meal preparation, social engagements, shopping for food, community involvement, personal appointments, work and school schedules and planned free time.

"Students learn everything from how to cook, take the bus and pay their bills, to how to interject into daily conversations so they can make friends," said Betsey Parlato, President of Chapel Haven. "We also focus on breaking students out of their daily habits so they can experience new and exciting things. One student entered the program and spent 22 hours a day on the computer – a safe, non-threatening environment. He no longer feels the need to isolate and is out in the world, pursuing a happy life."

Chapel Haven's curriculum is designed as a two-year program. Students who continue to live in the Greater New Haven Community can still receive assistance from the ASAT Community Support Program for a minimum of one year.

For more information about Chapel Haven, please call the Office of Admissions at (203) 397-1714, X113., or Learn more about Chapel Haven at our website

Disclaimer: Internet Special Education Resources (ISER) provides this information in an effort to help parents find local special education professionals and resources. ISER does not recommend or endorse any particular special education referral source, special educational methodological bias, type of special education professional, or specific special education professional.


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