Club 57 Benefits Adolescents and Adults with Autism
By Christi Mathis
A unique new program for high-functioning adolescents and adults with autism spectrum disorders has come to the region courtesy of Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
Club 57, established by the College of Education and Human Services’ Rehabilitation Institute, is free and open to all who fit the criteria. Sessions began during the spring 2017 semester and already 35 individuals, ranging in age from 12 to 28, are participating. They are coming to SIU from a radius of about 60 miles.
About one in 68 children is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and each year 55,000 people with autism turn 18, Ruth Anne Rehfeldt, professor of behavior analysis and therapy at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, said. Depression and anxiety occur at very high rates among children with autism as they enter adolescence and adulthood, while unemployment and avoidance of social relationships are also common, she said. Many people with autism crave relationships but simply don’t know how to overcome their social difficulties.
That’s what Club 57 is all about. “It’s a fun, activity-based behavioral treatment program for adolescents and adults with high- functioning autism. We want to give them adaptive skills to help them meet the challenges they will encounter as they go through junior high, high school and become adults,” Rehfeldt said.
Participants meet, typically twice a week, at the Autism Research and Treatment Center, located in the Wham building on the SIU campus. They enjoy a wide variety of activities. Group board games, flashlight tag, special projects, an occasional outing for bowling or other events, or even outdoor fun when the weather allows are all possibilities. Embedded within each session are therapeutic elements of behavioral treatment to promote flexible thinking.
“Using the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) model, we implement behavioral interventions to enhance their social, emotional and psychological flexibility. Essentially, we’re promoting flexible thinking that helps people deal with problematic thought patterns,” Rehfeldt said. “Participants are learning to handle the thought patterns that lead to depression and obsessive behaviors and to set goals and realize what’s important so even when the problematic thought patterns arise, they won’t become entangled in them but can focus and work toward their goals. The program also includes social skills elements to enable participants to enhance their interactions with other people.”
ACT has proven very successful in treating depression, PTSD, work burnout and other issues during various clinical trials. Faculty and students from SIU’s behavior analysis and therapy program are modifying and adapting the ACT model specifically for those with autism. Rehfeldt said the new clinical services initiative benefits participants and the community while also providing SIU students valuable hands-on learning experience and research opportunities.
The program is funded in part through the Autism Program of Illinois (TAP), which is providing support for the Autism Research and Treatment Center through June 30. Rehfeldt said they are grateful for that support which enables them to assist community members.
Undergraduate and graduate students have created and are implementing the Club 57 programming. Doctoral and advanced master’s degree students have primary oversight, under the direction of Rehfeldt, Andrea Mazo and William B. Root. Mazo and Root are doctoral students and board-certified behavior analysts from St. Louis and Olympia, Wash., respectively, who are serving as the Club 57 coordinators.
Club 57 is open to all high-functioning adolescents and adults age 12 or older who are highly verbal and have an IQ of about 85 or higher, Rehfeldt said. The participants are grouped on the basis of age, interests and needs and each small group includes no more than three or four people, along with multiple SIU students.
For the spring semester, there are eight separate groups: ages 10-12, 13-15, 16-18, 18-20, 20-25 and 26-28 as well as a college-age group specifically for freshman through senior year undergraduates. Scheduling is determined based on the needs of the program participants.
During the initial sessions, participants have focused on a variety of social skills such as politely interrupting conversations and interacting effectively with one another, Mazo said.
The group leaders help participants look at their feelings and thoughts in new and different ways during the sessions. For instance, Club 57 members were encouraged to think of a traffic jam as a metaphor for the way our thoughts sometimes clog our minds and immobilize us. The thoughts, worries and fears may be so believable and consistent, that they actually freeze us, as if we are in a traffic jam. However, if we learn to just notice thoughts as thoughts and to be present with them, we can navigate the road of life toward more valued living, Root said.
During Club 57 meetings, the young people have also practiced mindful breathing exercises and participated in a variety of experiential activities, including creating personalized T-shirts that represent their group values along with their individual values.
The response to Club 57 has been tremendous, organizers said. Participants and family members said they were excited as the group is just what they were looking for. Their thoughts mirrored those of a grandfather who said his grandson looks forward to the meetings which he hopes will make the young man more confident and expand his world as he sees that others have the same concerns, struggles and issues that he does.
Club 57 dovetails with the increasing focus on student training and professional development of students taking place at the Autism Research and Treatment Center. Rehfeldt said the program provides an opportunity for her and the Behavior Analysis and Therapy students to develop a research-based curriculum for teens and adults with “high-functioning” autism that is largely based on social skills instruction and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.
Plans in the near future also call for establishment of “Think Tank” sessions to foster cross-campus collaboration to benefit the autistic community and its needs and concerns as well as a public Autism Lecture Series.