LIVINGSTON, NJ - High School students at The Children’s Institute (TCI) in Livingston, which serves more than 270 students on the autism spectrum, which makes it one of the largest programs of its kind in the state, are developing new friendships, learning sportsmanship, applying social skills and acquiring new skills through a special after-school program with area schools.
Students from Livingston High School, Seton Hall Preparatory School, Mount St. Dominic Academy, and Montclair Kimberley Academy visit TCI weekly to engage in many activities and participate in community outings with TCI High School students. On recent visits, students played flag football, mini golf, enjoyed yoga, culinary arts, visited a local bowling alley, went to the Livingston Mall, took tennis lessons and learned how to produce a video.
TCI Transition Coordinator Leanne Hesse, who oversees the after school and respite programs at TCI, said the after-school program is beneficial to both TCI students and students from the participating schools. “Our program will help students develop sportsmanship, build friendships and apply social skills, as well as provide recreational and leisure opportunities.”
Hesse also commented on how the program helps students in the participating schools, “The typical student from our integrated programs reports that he or she has a “sense of purpose” by being a part of our programs. The students have said they develop empathy and compassion, which cannot be taught within the classroom.”
“Data and statistics show that teens on the spectrum will model appropriate behavior from a typical teen,” Hesse also noted.
Lindsay Releford, a TCI young adult program teacher, works with Director of Campus Ministry at Mount St. Dominic Academy Christine Victori to plan the program for female students, which is now in its third year. “We do all different vocational and social activities at both schools and out in the community to give our students an experience that neurotypical peers would have on a daily basis.”
Michael Zinsmeister, known as “Mr. Z,” the director of student activities at Seton Hall Prep in West Orange, said that the after-school program with TCI has become so popular with Seton Hall Prep students that it is normal for 70-80 students to apply to participate, with only 15 being accepted.
“Our kids see it as something valuable,” Zinsmeister said. “We spend a couple of hours with these kids and they come to see them as their friends. They can learn from their peers and many of these kids have a family member on the spectrum.”
Many students from the participating private schools said they also enjoy coming to TCI, making new friends and actually learning from TCI students in grades 10-12.
“It’s really satisfying to see the kids really open up after several weeks in the program,” said David Wassef, a Seton Hall Prep senior from Towaco.
Amith Iyer, a senior at Seton Hall Prep, who lives in Montville, said he looks forward to coming to TCI each week. “I look forward to working with the kids here,” he said. “All of the activities help them and help us to connect with them.”
Vincent Miller, a sophomore at Seton Hall Prep, who is from West Orange, said he has a brother on the spectrum. “I like it—you get to have fun with the kids,” he said. “You get to kick a soccer ball around and hang out.”
Valerie Ehrich, a Mount St. Dominic junior from Cedar Grove, said she loves participating in the program. “I think it’s really cool—you get to be with people whom you would not normally see on a social basis.”
Erin Mulrooney, a Mount St. Dominic senior from Totowa, said she loves the program and is in her third year as a participant. Erin has a 13-year-old brother with autism. “I like being with kids like him,” she said. “I like doing activities with them. I feel like it makes them happy to socialize and make new friends.”
TCI’s elementary, middle and ninth grade programs are located on its Verona campus. Its high school, young adult and The Center for Independence programs are located at its new Livingston campus.