12/20/09 — Starting new 'Conversations'

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Starting new 'Conversations'

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on December 20, 2009 1:50 AM

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Nancy Black, center, leads a session of Conversations for middle school students Kenny Wayne Grice, left, and Dan Fusco, right. The weekly program features a 45-minute discussion segment at Skill Creations, followed by a 90-minute horseback riding lesson.

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From left, Ben Flynn, Dan Fusco and Jared Sutton enjoy horseback riding under the direction of Stepping Stone Therapeutic Riding Center program director Jana Foote while at Skill Creations following their Conversations group session for middle school students.

Nancy Black knows what it is like to have a son who battles autism.

Daniel, 13, has Asperger Syndrome, and while he is high-functioning, social skills are a challenge.

Daniel is one of the fortunate few to still receive services from the state, but there are numerous others who found themselves without help when funding cuts hits the state's mental health services budget.

"I'm very active with Eastpointe and also on the state level," Mrs. Black said. "When these developmental disabled monies were going away, I knew there would be families not able to move ahead with efforts."

So, when the inevitable occurred and funds disappeared, Ms. Black secured money from Eastpointe to start her own program -- Conversations -- to help those children who could no longer count on state services.

Mrs. Black volunteers her time and there is no cost to parents -- the only stipulation is that the child is not already receiving state services.

The after-school program for middle school children with developmental disabilities, began meeting in late September. The group meets once a week at Skill Creations.

The premise is simple and literal -- they have a 45-minute conversation led by Mrs. Black.

"We talk about a topic, anything from the latest video games and movies to things going on in school," she said. "We try to do age-appropriate conversation, make sure they're staying on task. It's really fascinating helping them act like kids who don't have autism."

Mrs. Black says she tries to keep it a "healthy and upbeat" atmosphere.

On this particular day, she had brought in a map of the U.S. and asked everyone to share all the places they had visited or lived. One by one, the students compared notes, asked questions, and were guided through basic components of a conversation -- making eye contact, taking turns and listening when another is speaking.

"I advocate for many of these children in the schools, that's how I meet many of the children," Mrs. Black said. "So I have watched them in school, and I have watched them falter in schools because they didn't have the social skills.

"This is not necessarily something the schools can teach them."

Even in just a few short weeks, the results are becoming evident, she said.

"It's basics in the beginning -- eye contact, talking in a modulated voice, no growling or character voices, stay focused on conversation, learning to read each other's facial expressions and body language," she said. "They're learning to ask questions of each other instead of just talking."

Parents accompany their children to the sessions, partially for support and also to be on hand if there is a need to handle issues that might come up.

One of the bi-products has been that moms have developed their own "group therapy," Mrs. Black said.

"While the children are learning, the moms are commiserating," she said.

They might remain quietly in the background during the conversation segment, but they get an opportunity to be more vocal once the children go outside for the activity portion -- 90-minutes of horseback riding, provided by Stepping Stone therapeutic riding program.

"Nobody understands unless they have somebody in the (autism) spectrum," said Theresa Flynn, whose son Ben is in the group. "If they're high-functioning or low-functioning ... it's nice to get feedback."

Mrs. Flynn learned the diagnosis two years ago, when Ben was 9. He is high-functioning, she said, but still faced some obstacles.

"Ben doesn't see differences, he wants to be friends with everyone," she said. "Trying to do that without supervision, it was stressful."

For the past two years, she has home-schooled her son.

"I don't know that I will do that forever, but it's giving him a chance to relax, take that social pressure off," she said.

He is very active, also participating in music and gymnastics, his mother said, And he especially looks forward to coming to Conversations.

"I think it's helped," agreed Mary Jordan, who brings grandson, Kenny Wayne Grice, 15. "I think the smaller groups, they deal with it better. The groups at school, if they were smaller, they would function much better. I know the economy has busted the walls out, but at the same time they can't tolerate larger groups."

Mikki Sutton has been amazed by some of the changes in her son, Jared.

"His confidence level has boosted" since attending the group, she said. "You see them in a different way. You see a different outlook in the way they interact with other people.

"Jared will sit, ramble on with a group about things that I personally didn't know."

There are a few openings still available in the "Conversations" middle school program, said Ms. Black, who is also introducing a high school version after the holidays.

She said she is seeking volunteers to come in and lead a session.

For more information on the program or to volunteer, call 920-5799.