ERIE, Pa. (AP) — The boy sat at the table, legs crossed, shoes off, and slowly rocked his body in his chair while he flipped through a thick history book.
A girl next to him wrapped a blue blanket more tightly around her thin frame and fiddled with a chain of plastic stars.
The third student, a boy at the same table, sat quietly with his eyes downcast, not talking to either.
Only when Christy Fischer, the group's teacher, or therapeutic leader, brought them together in a circle on the classroom floor did they start to interact with one another, and only with her prompting.
"How are you feeling, Jeffery?" one boy in the group asked.
"Excellent," 12-year-old Jeffery Mantsch Jr. replied before turning to another student to ask the same question.
It was a simple exchange, a passing-in-the-hallway pleasantry that typically happens with little thought or prodding. But for some children and adults with autism spectrum disorders, some of the most basic social niceties — the currency and basic blocks of human relationships — aren't basic at all.
Connections Camp, a unique summer day camp run by the Barber National Institute, aims to make things a little easier. For six weeks, students with Asperger's syndrome and high-functioning autism learn social skills like sharing, engaging in conversation and recognizing the needs and feelings of others.
More than 100 campers ages 5 through 14 are participating, 72 at the camp in Erie, held this year at Gannon University, and an additional 30 at Youngsville Elementary School in Warren.
"Our whole mission with Connections Camp is to get them to start to make those social connections, to think socially and use social awareness so when they're in those social situations they know how they are supposed to act," said Rochelle Von Hof, lead clinical supervisor for clinical services with the Barber National Institute.
"Those basic social skills that we take for granted or we don't think about ... (children and teenagers with autism) are not that attuned to that. They have to be taught the social appropriateness of everything."
There often isn't time for that in traditional school settings, said Abby Zehe, the site supervisor in Erie. Staff work with parents and individual students before camp begins to identify particular challenges and set goals.
Camp "gives them the opportunity to be with others that have difficulty in social settings," Zehe said. "It gives them the tools and opportunity to work on those skills."
The 11- to 12-year-old classroom in Gannon's Palumbo Center is decorated in a pirate theme with streamers and a treasure chest full of trinkets for students who have earned a reward. A poster on the wall outlines the rules: "Just because we're the pirate room doesn't mean we're pirates. Act appropriately!"
Each day follows a set schedule, a must for kids who thrive on routine: morning meeting, followed by work on social skills and a group activity, a break, then social skills games, a group exercise, unstructured peer socialization time, and a special activity. The day wraps up with work on coping skills and a meeting.
A recent day began with Fischer asking the students what made them angry, and then rating that anger on a scale of 1 to 10. Later, each picks a card with a different emotion on it, and explains actions that cause that emotion.
Sam Pineo, a 12-year-old from Meadville, picks "angry."
"What makes your parents angry, Sam?" one of the classroom aides asks.
"When my sisters argue," he answers.
Later, he talks about how much he likes the program. He's learning things like the need for personal space.
"It's the first camp I've gone to for autism that I actually enjoy," Sam said. "In other camps they did things that make me feel uncomfortable, and we haven't done any of that."
Sam was diagnosed with autism just a year ago, after his family started noticing that some of the typical transitions that start to happen in fifth grade were making him anxious. Background noise bothered him. He hit and bit himself.
His school principal recommended Connections Camp.
Sara Pineo signed up before she figured out all of the logistics of how they'd get there every day, driving from Meadville.
"I felt like I needed to do it," Pineo said. "If you had a child who needed therapy or treatment for any major disease, you'd figure out how to get them there. You do that for this as well."
For years, Pineo asked her son to try out different activities, trying to find his niche. This week he came home, smiled and told her that she might have gotten it right this time.
"I'm excited for him because I feel like it's helping him grow in confidence, and he's been having to face some fears. It seems to be a very safe setting for him where he feels comfortable and enjoys that time.
"As a parent, I want other people to be able to see my kids as I see them — as being amazing people with incredible talents and great stories," Pineo said. "That's my hope for him, that as he moves into this next academic year the things that tend to cause him to feel isolated will start to dissipate so that instead (other people) can see who he really is and recognize all he has to offer. That's part of what's really great about this camp, that they get to that point."
The day ended with the group blowing bubbles, a deep-breathing coping skill designed as fun.
"These kids, basically their main difficulty is they have a little bit more difficulty fitting in," Fischer said. "Friends and social interaction are so important. The age group, middle school, is when they start to define who they are, and friends are such an important part of that.
"Each one of them, if they feel even a little bit more comfortable with their peers, if they don't feel alone, that would be success for me."
Information from: Erie Times-News, http://www.goerie.com