Sarah loves to talk, but sometimes she gets carried away and interrupts other people. Her new friends in a new social group that meets at Sacred Heart are helping her learn and reinforce good social skills, and she is helping them as well. Sarah, Julia, Brad, Josh and Jesse, all ages 10 to 12, meet every Tuesday evening in Sacred Heart’s Pediatric Rehabilitation Department, for learning, conversational role-playing, problem-solving skills and games that help reinforce these skills.
These children are diagnosed with developmental delays, Asperger’s Syndrome, Pervasive Development Disorder (PDD), Nonverbal Learning Disorder, and other learning disabilities that can hinder them from performing well in school and making friends. Since the children began meeting, Brad, for example, has learned to apologize immediately when interrupting someone and to wait until they are finished speaking before adding to the conversation.
Krissy Perry and Kelton Huffman, speech language pathologists at Sacred Heart, are the creators of this social group. Casey Cowan, Pediatric Rehab Aide, assists with the group dynamics and helps track how well each child demonstrates skills during meetings.
“I created the social-group experience in a previous setting and saw how beneficial it was during the time it existed,” says Perry. “I wanted to recreate and expand on what I had already started. I teamed up with Kelton and Casey, and it just grew from there.”
Perry and Huffman have built this program from the ground up, pulling from professional literature and creating fun activities that reinforce good social skills that these children will rely on for the rest of their lives.
“We saw a need in our community and created this group that has allowed opportunities for these children to make friendships utilizing appropriate social skills that they will need for a lifetime,” says Huffman. “All of the children are very affectionate and seek attention; they just need help in a few areas, such as learning how to be less self-centered and how to see things from another person’s perspective.”
The progress has been remarkable. During the first session, the children were loud, disruptive and overwhelming, according to Perry. “We see improvements from week to week in their behaviors,” she said. “In fact, one mother reported that a month or two after her son started with the group, his math teachers approached her and asked, ‘What are you doing differently now? He’s not interrupting anymore, he’s participating in class, and asking questions!’”
Activities are tailored, and the children receive individual therapy and plenty of one-on-one time with the pathologists. The children are involved in decision-making, too, so that they all have input on the fairest way to choose someone to lead a game. At the end of each meeting, a member from the group volunteers to share with the parents what the group did that evening.
To help the children make new friends, Perry created laminated cards that the children can put in their pockets to remind them of the kinds of appropriate questions to ask peers to gain more information about them. The group has been working to compile a list of appropriate questions for other people such as adults, parents and teachers. These lists will be turned into pocket-sized laminated cards, as well, so that the children have access to them when they aren’t in the
Huffman created a life-size game using the floor tiles and their social goals. If the children correctly answer a social question and practice the social skills taught, they advance a square. If they interrupt, do not make eye contact when speaking or listening, or leave their designated section of the floor, they move back a space. The first child to the finish line gets to choose the activity for the remainder of the session.
Sarah’s mom, Karen Baker, says she has been looking for some time for a group like this, and was considering driving to Mobile or Ft. Walton Beach when she heard Sacred Heart was starting a social group. Pamela Dias, Josh’s mom, says he has been doing much better since attending the social group. “He’s doing better at making eye contact, and he’s now getting good conduct marks in school,” says Pamela.
Perry and Huffman want to give the children even more opportunities to practice their skills in other social situations. Last October, they took the group trick-or-treating to a few departments in the hospital to help them practice the new skills they learned. They hope to possibly start a second group in the future for children ages 7 and 8.
“The kids are doing so well and enjoying it so much that it makes us want to do more for them because we see how beneficial it is,” says Kelton. “They are always asking, ‘What are we going to do next?’”
For more information about this social group, please call the Sacred Heart Pediatric Rehabilitation Department at 416-7343.