according to the CDC. In addition to
mastering details, many children with
autism demonstrate an outstanding ability to remember information. Some excel
in math, science, music or art.
Many of the children are set in their
ways. That means it’s essential to intro-
duce new activities gradually, says Ford.
“When Christian started the swim-
ming lessons, he was uncomfortable
with water touching his hands or feet,”
she says. “The sta; had enormous pa-
tience and spent much time helping him
to become comfortable.”
he growing awareness of au-
tism and other developmental
conditions that a;ect chil-
dren’s ability to function has
led to the expansion of programs like Spe-
cial Olympics, founded in ;;;; by Eunice
Kennedy Shriver. Special Olympics New
Jersey now o;ers ;; Olympic-style indi-
vidual and team sports. That helps parents
of children with autism find an activity
that meets their child’s precise needs.
The year-round Special Olympics
calendar includes summer standbys
such as softball and tennis, as well as
bocce and power lifting. During the fall,
athletes participate in equestrian events,
cycling, flag football and triathlon. Snow-boarding and cross-country skiing are
popular in the winter.
The YMCA of Burlington and Camden
Counties sponsors a special-needs swim
team called the Cyclones. “We have ;;
kids in the program,” says Linda N. Davis,
executive director of branch operations.
“Some kids begin when they are ;; and
come back year after year because swim-
ming has become an integral part of their
Special Olympic teams also help kids
with autism make and keep friends, says
Davis. By learning to take turns and work
toward a goal, kids with autism learn to
appreciate peers with a range of intel-
lectual disabilities, cognitive delays and
Art is another leisure activity that
can be beneficial to autistic children,
especially those who have di;culty
expressing their thoughts and emotions
in words. Some are nonverbal.
“Art can be a welcome relief from the
daily struggle to use words e;ectively,”
says Elie Porter Trubert, executive direc-
tor of the Center for Contemporary Art in
Bedminster. “It can also be empowering,
because in many other facets of the child’s
life, the caregiver makes all the decisions.”
But in art, the child selects the image,
what media to use, and how emotions
and ideas are depicted. If a child dislikes
the feel of clay, he can use paint or pencil.
If a child is fascinated by circles, he can
draw them again and again.
Originally a one-day program for
children with autism, the center now has
a year-round calendar of classes. Most of
the children range in age from ; to ;;.
Art projects capitalize on the
strengths of children on the spectrum,
says Trubert. Some think in pictures. A
few are so proficient in understanding
spatial relationships, drawing, and other
skills that they pursue careers in art.
Each session ends with an art show,
where parents and caregivers have an op-
portunity to admire the children’s work
and recognize their accomplishments.
his year, the Kaplen JCC on
the Palisades in Tenafly will
serve about ;;; children
with special needs. At least
;; percent of them have some form of
autism. O;erings include a therapeu-
tic nursery, after-school programs,
two-week summer camps, and Sunday
programs for school- aged children and
young adults. Such recreational opportu-
nities help kids learn the skills they need
as they “move through the educational
system and find their niches as adults,”
says Shelley Levy, director of the Gut-
tenberg Center for Special Services at
the Kaplen JCC.
For example, learning to make eye
contact and smile helps kids make
friends in elementary school, she says.
Noticing and interpreting body language
and tone of voice can make the di;erence between a young person landing a
job and remaining financially dependent
In the past, individuals with Asperg-
er’s syndrome, a high-functioning form
of autism, sometimes ended up socially
isolated and struggling financially as
adults, even though many are highly
intelligent. Thanks to the therapeutic
nursery, they are getting o; to an optimal
start, so that many graduates enroll in
regular public and private schools.
The JCC’s nonsectarian nursery offers a ;;-month program and a six-week
summer session for ;- to ;-year-olds
who are bright and have high-functioning autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other developmental
disabilities. Teachers use puppets, role
playing and stories to help the kids identify di;erent social settings and what is
expected in classrooms, at parties and on
ith the first widely diagnosed
group of children on the
spectrum reaching adult-
hood, a new challenge has
emerged: providing innovative programs
that will enable adults with autism to
have a quality life.
To meet this need, the Kaplen JCC
o;ers Project PALS, an after-school program on Tuesdays for ;;- to ;;-year-olds
and a transitions program on Sundays
for ;;- to ;;-year-olds. The transition
program combines activities like swimming and music with training in life
skills like cooking.
“In addition to planning and preparing
a meal, engaging in conversations over
dinner can help young adults develop
the skills they need to live indepen-
dently,” says Levy. “Friendships are very
important to young adults because many
of them are no longer in school, and their
parents may have health problems or
Pat Weindorfer, a former board mem-
ber and committee member of Autism
Society Southwest New Jersey, predicts
that there will be more recreational
activities for adults with autism because
parents and siblings have developed
skills in advocating and networking.
“Twenty years ago there were no
Christmas parties, hayrides or bowling leagues for kids with autism, so our
activity committee created them,” says
Weindorfer. “Now these activities are being adapted for kids in their ;;s who still
function at the level of a ;-year-old, as
well as those who are working and living
Sharon Johnson is a New York City freelance reporter specializing in health care.