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In this webcast we will be discussing the Aspirations Program at the Ohio State University’s Nisonger Center, designed for young adults with autism spectrum disorders. With us today are Tom Fish, Director of Social Work and Family Support Services, Angela Suell Denny, Facilitator and Curriculum Coordinator for Aspirations, and Jeff Siegel, Facilitator and Coordinator for Aspirations.

Dr. Fish, can you generally describe the Aspirations program?

That is a program specifically designed for young adults who are transitioning from school to adult life who have high functioning autism and the program’s been in existence for close to six years now. We have served approximately one hundred young adults with high functioning autism. The purpose of the program is to give these young adults an experience with other people and to let them know they are not alone, and to kind of give them some social and vocational guidance and support as they figure out what they are going to do with transition. And in addition, another really exciting component of our Aspirations program is the fact that we actively engage families, and we do so through the families participating in a support information kind of environment while their sons or daughters are in the nine week Aspirations program, and then on a monthly basis we also have forums for families in conjunction with a monthly program that we run for everybody who’s been through Aspirations, and we call that the recap program. That is everything from going on social outings; to having speakers come in and speak about sexuality and responsibility, self-advocacy and a variety of other things.

How often does the aspirations program meet?

Answered by Angela Suell Denny. The Aspirations program meets one time a week for eight consecutive weeks. It’s comprised of, as Tom had mentioned, young adults that are on the autism spectrum, and covers a scope of diagnoses, high functioning autism, PDD/NOS, and also aspergers; there also may be some co-occurring conditions as well. But they are young adults that range in the age of eighteen to thirty years old, some a little bit older, but typically the underlying theme is they’re in transition in different phases of their life.

What can the young adult expect during the eight-week program?

Answered by Angela Suell Denny. One of the crux of the program that we really try to focus on is it provides continuity and support for these individuals. Often they come to us during a transition period, depending on the age of that individual, they may be just embarking on transition in to post high school, whether it’s vocational or college. Some of these folks have already had that experience unsuccessfully maybe, unsuccessful work attempts, or maybe unsuccessful collage experience, or vocational training experiences, job placement experiences. Again the theme is, regardless of the age, we have folks that are trying to work their way through the transition. Because of that we like to provide support for them in a setting that is unconditional and to have a point person, myself and Jeff typically because we’re the facilitators of the group, are the point person that the family and/or the individual can go to, to do on the spot problem solving or be a sounding board, and that’s also a strength of the way the program is set up.

Dialogue from a video on the DVD of an Aspirations group meeting:

…certainly I would not want to come dressed in a pair of torn jeans, a t-shirt I’ve been wearing for two days. But, if I was interviewing at Kroger’s I might not want to come in a jacket and tie. Why not? Because it’s maybe a little over zealous, overkill sort of, over zealous as you said is a good word I like that. But yes, what is this guy expecting, an executive salary here or something? I know, like when I went to interview at Kroger all I wore was a button down shirt and pair of black pants tucked in with a belt. Right, oh that’s smart, so you were business casual. That’s kind of actually what I go for.

What topics does the group address?

Answered by Angel Suell Denny. The topics address issues of problem solving and flexible thinking. How to understand the nuances of social communication, whether you’re in a formal work setting or in the classroom and trying to negotiate and navigate through the challenges of trying to complete your course work, and talking to your supervisors (webcast has a video example of the group role playing appropriate interviewing techniques/ideas for Jiffy Car Rental). We also discuss the friendship issues, how to foster healthy relationships is the focus. We also address the vocational planning with is essential to these individuals. Independence, responsibility, what that means. That’s very specific to the individual, which is nice, it’s not canned. We have one individual who their issue at this point may be I’m trying to transition into an apartment, so you have those independent issues, those responsibility issues. We may have another individual that’s trying to transition into, O.K. I’m leaving high school but I need to know how I can transition successfully into my post high school experience.

What can the parent or guardian expect during the eight-week program?

Answered by Angel Suell Denny. That’s a nice feature, because it is a two-pronged experience, it includes the family or guardian. The parents during this eight-week process, they also come typically to the sessions but they meet on their own in a different location and they cover issues that are relevant to the needs of their young adult at that time. They’re able to share information, provide support to one another, and from my observation because they’re in the transition stage themselves, they run the risk of isolation, just like our young adults do, and this provides an opportunity for them to be back into the community again, connected again, and getting supports that they made not have had in previous years. They also are afforded the opportunity to listen to the presenters who touch on those essential issues that they may be addressing: long term planning for beyond them, social security, vocational planning, and day to day issues like John wants to move out but he really doesn’t understand what it means to move out and live on his own. So there’s a real nice support there for our families as well.

Jeff, can you tell us about the RECAP or reunion programs?

Answered by Jeff Siegel. The whole purpose to the RECAP program is really a follow-up to the Aspirations group. What we try to emphasize to the group is, we have this eight week program that we’re in and we finish the eight week program and you might think, O.K. goodbye, it was nice seeing you, we enjoyed your company. You were in the group, we taught you a few things, now you’re on your own. We really try to emphasize a follow-up; we really want to see the interaction between the young adults, and beyond that. We want to see them really feel comfortable to integrate with people within the community. So we really do try to have as many community events as possible. We did kayaking in the summer, developing team building with that. We did mall madness that was our most recent reunion activity for mother’s day. They’re a funny story about that, a mother wanted us to encourage her daughter to buy a gift for her, so she thought we should have a lecture on how to buy gifts for mother’s day. I said I don’t think that giving them a lecture about programming would work out very well, so let’s try an activity. So we just go to the mall, I give them some information and they go out. The key thing that really works with our reunion events, that makes I think them popular, is that we try to bring in volunteers, people that are in the community that are young adults themselves, students at campus, people who just enjoying being with different kinds of people. The mix really makes them fell that they are a larger part of the community.

What is the goal of the recap meetings?

Answered by Jeff Siegel. The goal is really to be with younger adults who share similar challenges, to provide a comfortable environment for them where they can really enjoy themselves but also gain something where they really have the opportunity to interact with each other, to become friendly. And where they begin to take responsibility themselves and applying the skills that they’ve learned, so it’s not just an eight week closed course that they learn some things and how do they apply it? Well that’s sort of go figure it out. We want them to engage us, we want to see them involved and engaged and practicing these things.

Is there a parent component to those recap meetings?

Answered by Jeff Siegel. Yes it’s a very important part. We really try to continue that continuity from the parent group that met with the eight-week program and they continue to meet, they have different topics, they have speakers come in sometimes, or they just have a general discussion. Sometimes, like with the kayaking, we try to create a family atmosphere, and the parents themselves go kayaking and we usually have a large picnic with that as well, so that there’s some family continuity also.

Have any additional groups been created since the development of the Aspirations program?

Answered by Jeff Siegel. That’s a really good question, it’s another important component of Aspirations. Initially we had the eight week program, from that I know historically since I came in in the middle of the program, that they developed the parent program, and we began to see really great interaction in the large reunion groups. We had twenty to twenty five people coming on an average, with minimal calling to follow up on it. We actually had people calling us to find out when the next activity was if they hadn’t heard soon enough. So that was really great that they were interacting with each other and getting along with each other but still were not connecting outside of Aspirations. In other words they were not calling each other, of course there were people doing it, but not as much as we wanted. So we had to look at the opportunity, how can we find a way, is there something else we need to get them engaged. We came up with two suggestions, one that happened I think because we saw a need for it was the women’s group which is called WOA, Women of Aspirations, and that’s run by two of our YATC (young adult transition corps) volunteers, as Tom mentioned earlier about the program. They came in because we have a smaller amount of young adult females that are on the spectrum in our program, and even fewer that came to the reunions once they had graduated. We really felt the need for them to identify as a group and to themselves. So they created their group. Then we said what about the guys, how do we get them engaged? Because we have all these guys coming to the events but they’re not connecting, so we created Aspirations Guys. The intent is if we get four or five people coming to an event, say maybe twice a month, in between the large events, just doing something, just a social activity, there’s no educational component to it at all. The intent is for them just to get together and we’re beginning to see results with more people outside are connecting with each other outside of the official Aspirations program. The other thing we decided to make, I also run a Next Chapter Book Club, and we have some individuals, I have one individual who’s gone through the Aspirations program who has aspergers who is in my book club on Friday afternoons, and he’s a little bit lower on the spectrum and it fits well for him. But others that I have tried to encourage to come as another opportunity or another venue for socialization came and had no interest. I said what is it, this is a great opportunity for you, and they said, we don’t feel like reading abbreviate books, or we just don’t connect with these people. So I realized there was a need for creating an opportunity for them to get together to read in a public setting, but it had to be a different setting. So the model of next chapter book club really stood out to me as the opportunity to create just an Aspirations book club. We don’t have any particular name but about five or six guys get together on Thursday night, we meet at the Barnes and Noble and they just discuss, now they are reading the complete works of Sherlock Holmes, and they decided to extend that for another four weeks, much to the dismay of one person, but majority ruled in the group and they all democratically voted.

What are the strengths of the program and what are some of the barriers that one may encounter?

Answered by Jeff Siegel and Angela Suell Denny. Well lets focus on the strength then we can talk about the barrier following. I think that one of the great strengths is that we work together; both Angela and I work really close together and are in consent contact. We talk with each other usually after the day of the session; usually because we really want to know and share with each other what we thought went on. There are things that Angela picks up that I didn’t notice and visa versa. So it’s really important to have a good team working together. One of the drawbacks that I’ve found is that if we have a participant that comes in that is doing this program completely because their parents are bribing them or telling them, for example if you get through the eight week program, you just have to get through the eight week program and you’ll get your own car. And they know that so they think they just have to get through the eight-week program and just cruse. They’re off on their own and we never really see them again. There isn’t much that you can do about that, you know if you know about it before hand, you try. What I have done since that is I really try to encourage both parents and participants when they come to interview with us, that knowing this is a voluntary program, we are not begging you to join us, we want you to join us, we think you might be a good candidate, but it needs to be a total picture, both parents and participants need to come and need to be engaged and really want to do this. If one is not committed, if their parents are not really committed, or the son or daughter is sort of like half committed, and they come it really won’t work in the end. Chances are that they will drop out, or once the program is over we will never hear from them again. So we really emphasis there really needs to be a continuity, this is something that both have to work at.

Angela says, it gives you insights into the family dynamic, which turns out to be also a very helpful snapshot for us. Even if they do manage to show up every week, whether the motivation is there, sometimes that motivation increases because we have seen the individual start felling like I do have these folks I can connect to, it’s O.K. to have these feelings, it’s O.K. to kind of feel a little different because you know this guy over here is maybe a little bit different too. It makes them feel more comfortable and it gives them a place to go and be themselves. But it does give us insights into the dynamic of the family that may provide the opportunity to refer them for additional support. Because some of these folks, for whatever reason may have a fractured system at the time that needs to be repaired to help that young adult in his or hers later years. So if you have an individual who does try to start the group and then they, for lack of a better work, drop out, if gives us the opportunity to maybe give them another step that they can explore to where maybe they would be ready to come back into the group at a later point in time. One of the pitfalls of the group is you really have to have an individual that’s willing to stay on these persons. Because some of these folks are not self-starters, or the family is so stretched that they aren’t in a position to monitor and keep up with their young adult’s schedule. So it may fall on the coordinator to contact them, you have to have an individual for these groups, like any group that’s willing to do that because it not going to happen on its own, as Tom had mentioned in the beginning. The motivation of the participants is huge, the level of communication that already exists or doesn’t exist between the young adult and the parent seems to be a theme as well. Just how coordinated are they as a family, how regulated are they, how much mutual respect is going on to begin with. All of those things kind of feed into the success or the lack of success. Jeff Siegel says, I think that, just adding on to what Angela has said, I think that sometimes we do come across families that are a little fractured or seem like they have challenges in the beginning, but if there’s a willingness to work together and find the opportunities to change, it makes a difference. There was one family who came to us in the beginning in our first group this year back in the fall, and we both wondered how is anything ever going to happen, just by the remarks that the mother says the daughter was constantly playing up to her mother, and now she’s one of our peer mentors. I use her as an example to the others; I use her to talk to give positive messages to the new groups. Things aren’t perfect between the family, but there’s been a willingness to see a different viewpoint. And they have done some working together and they see that it makes a difference.

Where can someone find more information about the Aspirations program?

They can go to the website aspirationsohio.org or call 614-292-4185. You can contact Jeff Siegel directly at siegel.45@osu.edu, and/or Angela Suell Denny at amsuell@aol.com. Tom Fish can be reached at fish.1@osu.edu or 614-292-7550.

Do you have any advice or recommendations for someone wishing to create an Aspirations-type program?

Establish the need, organize, organize, organize, and plan. And then begin with some folks who really are dedicated to participating, not someone you think needs this, but someone who’s asking for this. It does make a big difference, you need to find the people, at least in the beginning, who really want to work on it, because even if it’s someone you really know that they really need this, but they just don’t want to hear about it and don’t want to do anything about it, just sort of complain about their situation, it’s very difficult to start it. You also need a lot of enthusiasm and sincerity, I find I’ve worked with teens many many years in different capacities, and I have found with teen or young adults you need to show enthusiasm and sincerity. If they see sincerity in a person, they see someone who really wants to work with them, that isn’t just doing this as a nine to five job, who has a lot of passion for what they are doing, they generally have enthusiasm for them and a sincerity.