FAU autism center provides instruction for teens in social and conversational skills

BOCA RATON, Fla - Sitting around a table in a conference room at Florida Atlantic University's Boca Raton campus, a group of students are under the watchful eye of instructors.

"The minute and hour hands glow green," says one student looking at a watch.

"That's very cool,"  responds another.

There's an important lesson taking place here and it has little to do with a wrist watch.

The youngsters and instructors are in a class at FAU's Center for Autism and Related Disabilities, where students learn how to be part of a conversation.

"It's not a skill that comes naturally to teens on the autism spectrum," said Ali Cunningham, the assistant director of the school's autism program.

Instructors work with high-functioning students with autism on the social skills needed for making and keeping friends. 

"Most teens on the autism spectrum don't learn this just by watching other teens and then acquiring the skill, they actually have to be taught the skill," said Cunningham.

For this lesson, the students brought in items they could use as conversation pieces and then began role-playing.

"Do you put it in water," asked one youngster about the watch.

What seems basic to many, can be a struggle for those with autism.

"If you kids were in school would you be talking about watches this long or do you think you'd change the conversation to something else," asked one of the instructors. " What do you think you could change it to? How could you change it?"

"I don't know," replied a student.

Often times youngsters with autism don't understand the value of small talk or using conversation to make friends.

"Most of them may have difficulty initiating friendships where they have very few or almost no friends, others are really good at the initiation part but then that maintenance part where people have to stand you for a long time gets a little tricky," said Cunningham.

It's tricky, but the instructors have  found with repeated practice sessions the students can learn basic social functions. 

The program runs for 14 weeks.

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