elitefts Managing Editor Sheena Leedham does more than write and edit articles and organize the line-up of columnists. She also serves as a facilitator and consultant for Ohio State University’s Nisonger Center Programs: Men’s Aspirations, ACE, and PLAN. On top of that, she also works with Dave Tate’s son Blaine, who has autism, on a weekly basis.

With her Men’s Aspirations group, she’s often working with five to twenty-five young men with autism. Sometimes Blaine tags along to some of these events.

Dave recalls his concerns about one of the first times Blaine joined Sheena on one of these excursions:

I was scared to death because he doesn’t do well with other kids. But you got 25 kids, and they are all on the spectrum, and from what I know, there’s very few major... meltdowns, issues, incidents. Talk to me about that. Is there a structure for that? If the parents want to try to find a way to get their kids involved because as a parent — as any parent — you want your kid to have socialization skills.

The question, then, comes down to this: What should parents of children with autism look for in similar programs like this?

Sheena starts by explaining how Men’s Aspirations got its start. Dr. David Beversdorf, a former assistant professor at OSU, created Aspirations via a pilot study, an umbrella program that focused on social skills for people with autism.

Today, Aspirations is a program that helps young adults with autism develop the skills they need in order to function in and contribute to society. It starts out with teaching kids basic social skills, such as approaching someone and looking them in the eye, shaking their hand, and making friends, to creating a resume, job searching, and adapting appropriate life skills.

After program participants complete the first eight weeks, they can experience the other programs that are part of Aspirations — and that’s where Sheena comes in.

When Sheena was asked to facilitate Men’s Aspirations, originally Men of Aspirations, her first thought was that she wanted to change the name:

Men of Aspirations? I want the guys to have this ownership of aspiration. It’s theirs.

When she first started, she observed the guys and asked the question, “What are we trying to accomplish here?” She didn’t want to drastically change the program.

Initially, the program consisted of taking the guys out to public spaces, such as restaurants, where they’ll learn skills like ordering from a menu. This helps them articulate what they want and teaches them patience as they wait for the food. They can make the connection of “if I can conduct myself properly in a restaurant, then I can do the same at my job.” They’d also go to movies and other outings.

Sheena found it to be blasé. There’s so much more to being social than behaving in a public restaurant. She wanted these kids to move and have some recreational aspect to what they were doing to spur social skills naturally.

It was redefining what this program was intended to do.

She listens to what the guys are interested in and want to experience and makes a list of ideas with their help. Rather than do what Sheena wants or suggests, each month, she’ll take the guys out to an activity they want to do.

Having a program based on their interests — after all, it is Men’s Aspirations, not Sheena’s Aspirations — brought a wide variety of new experiences for the guys. Since they want to be there, the socialization aspect comes naturally to them.

This is going to debunk everything we know about autism. We have kids we think are not social, they don’t care, they’d rather be on video games, they’re not going to be engaging, helpful, there’s no empathy... but based on their interests, based on what I have set up, they come, they’re engaged, and now they’re going to listen to the guy that runs the place because they need the rules before we get into our first mission of the day. Now you’re going to see a group of 20 guys, they’re silent, they’re engaged, they’re listening, they’re asking questions, they’re raising they’re hand, so now we need to gear up.

From there, the guys will ask each other questions and converse from there. It’s raw and natural, and they’re naturally becoming friends as a result.

By the end of the activity, they’ll start having more conversations about what they did, future plans, and more, and it’s completely natural.

Sheena knows she makes a difference when she hears from parents, who’ll tell her that their son had a great time and wants to go back, which is impressive, especially if this is someone who normally wouldn’t want to do that particular activity. And as a bonus, the family has more options for activities to do with their son.

Once Men’s Aspirations really kicked off and after she’d been training Blaine for a while, Sheena felt it was time to bring Blaine and her guys together. She remembers the worried look on Dave’s face when she asked if Blaine could come. And luckily, Dave gave Sheena and Blaine the green light to go — and it was a success.

Now he had a voice, he had choice.

Playing the "Autism Card" in Public

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