WCU grad students help children with autism in local community

Graduate students from Western Carolina University’s communication sciences and disorders department worked with Julie Ogletree, a speech-language pathologist in Jackson County, to develop a social skills group for children with autism.

Children with autism have difficulty with communication and social interaction, and have trouble reading social cues and being sensitive to other people’s feelings.

The idea for a social skills group to assist local children with autism began when Ogletree spoke with a parent last spring who was expressing a need for such support services west of Asheville. Ogletree contacted Kathy Dolbee, parent advocate for the Asheville Autism Society, and they began a four-week program with WCU graduate students.

“The parents and students enjoyed it so much that they wanted to continue,” said Ogletree. “I also had the good fortune to have a group of graduate students who were excited and enthusiastic to volunteer and continue the program through the fall, winter and spring.”

The social skills group is part of clinical rotations required of graduate students participating in activities funded through a grant for treatment of people with severe disabilities, said Bill Ogletree, head of the department of communication sciences and disorders at WCU and husband of Julie. In August 2008, the department received a $786,219 award from the U.S. Department of Education for a four-year cycle to fund students in WCU’s graduate program in communication sciences and disorders and practicing speech-language pathologists in the field.

“The social skills group has really been a success,” he said. “What is really wonderful is that it is totally a win-win situation. My students participate in cutting-edge services, the kids receive these services and the families have great models to take home and into other settings. As an extra plus, the children have become friends, and the family support networks are developing.”

Graduate student Nicole McRight witnessed the positive impact one of the group’s themes had on the children and the WCU students.

“Each third week we would do some sort of related activity to ensure that what we were doing was practical, and the first segment was working through challenges and overcoming fears, so we took the kids to the climbing wall at WCU,” said McRight, who graduated May 7. “We had a student who started this semester, and during the first session wouldn’t talk.  He could speak, but the newness of the group seemed to paralyze him. The day of the climbing wall, he was determined to make it to the top. With everyone coaching him, cheering him, he made it all the way to the top. It was such a high for us as observers.  Hearing them each cheering for one another felt like success, and watching them try their best felt like success – their success.”

Local parent Jane Coburn said she appreciates the help the social skills group provided. “The social group is wonderful,” Coburn said. “I have two sons on the autism spectrum, but they are very different. I loved that they had outings outside the classroom. They had dinner at Cullowhee Café, went rock climbing at WCU’s Campus Recreation Center and did a poetry slam at Signature Brew, a local coffee shop in Sylva. All the community experiences were great for them.”

In addition to weekly group meetings, the social skills group collaborated with a parent to produce an occupational therapy program called “How Does Your Engine Run?” For three weeks, the parent ran a one-hour program to help other parents understand more about their own actions.

 “The program really opened my eyes to how my own engine runs and how that may affect my kids,” said Coburn. “I was able to practice what I learned, so I can better help the boys.”

Group members said they hope to continue informally in the summer and pick up in the fall. “We really didn’t know each other when we all came together,” said Julie Ogletree. “We are having fun, learning together and making a difference. What makes it all worthwhile is when a parent tells you how much the program has meant to their child or helped them understand their child better.”