Sunday, January 2, 2011

After-school program at Boys & Girls Clubs in Florida helps autistic girl build relationships

From The Orlando Sentinel in Fla.:

A kid like Cindy Buige (pictured) isn't usually this friendly and snuggly.

The 8-year-old scooches over on the couch to nestle right up against this visitor. Her gray cat, Smokey, is trapped in her lap. He is not quite so fond of her version of extreme togetherness, and he has a keen set of claws. In seconds, he frees himself and plops to the floor.

Cindy looks up from the wisps of blond curls that frame her face. She smiles a big, toothy smile — those grownup teeth are still new — and her eyes lock onto mine.

She wiggles even closer.

Lots of kids would be this friendly to a stranger naturally, but Cindy is not the average second-grader. She's a child with autism. While symptoms vary dramatically, the one that's in common to people who have the disorder is challenges or delays in social communication.

"Want to see my new bedroom?" Cindy asks, taking my hand. "C'mon."

No big social gaps here. That's due, at least in part, to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Lake and Sumter Counties, where Cindy goes after Fruitland Park Elementary lets out every day. The club is one of many nonprofit agencies supported by the Orlando Sentinel Family Fund Holiday Campaign.

"Being a single mom, I couldn't afford a whole lot," said Cheri Buige, 35. "Day care is $90 a week. When I called the club, it was 200-some dollars a year.

"I can do that."

So each day, while her mom is working as a porter at a car dealership, Cindy rides a van that drops her at the club in Leesburg. Although hundreds of kids go there, all the staff members know Cindy, and they understand her problems. They work to see that she develops relationships that are so critical for autistic kids, and they keep a close eye on her.

When she began coming at age 5, it was Meltdown City. Any change in routine can be particularly devastating for autistic children.

"She was yelling a lot and screaming and crying," said Alicia Brinson, director of the Leesburg unit. "Her mom was frustrated; we were frustrated. She had so many issues, she almost could not attend."

But then they began to understand the girl. Now, she's just another kid.

"She's a typical little girl — she has moments where she whines or cries. We tell her, 'Cynthia, it's not going to happen today. You just have to stop,'" Brinson said.

And she does. It's amazing to see the cooperation that's possible when a child knows that those around her care for her.

"The staff has learned from her, and now understand how to deal with other kids like her who have come to the club," she said. "We love Cynthia, and we miss her when she doesn't come."

The staff at the club looks beyond Cynthia's disability. They see a kid who gets everything right when she goes into the room at the club set aside for students to do their homework and get tutoring help.

"Wow! When we see things like that, we're like, 'OK, you've been fooling us.' She's a very, very smart young lady," Brinson said admiringly.

For Cindy, the club spells fun. She has friends there, and she gets to do all sorts of stuff — roller-skating, bowling, trips to parks and movie days — that a single mom struggles to be able to do with a child.

Most important, her mom trusts the club with Cindy.

"They're involved. And there are so many of them. The staff is wandering around, making sure the kids are where they're supposed to be. If there's a problem, they approach me right away," Cheri said.

"I feel good about it. She's come a long way."