Programs aim to help autistic kids

Programs aim to help autistic kids

Amy and Jason Shafron’s 6-year-old, Noah, loves Sundays. Not because there’s no school that day, but because there’s Sunday Friends and Fun at the YM-YWHA of North Jersey in Wayne for 3- to 9-year-olds on the autism spectrum.

Sunday Friends and Fun is set to begin again on Feb. 10 and run through May, but when its previous session ended it was not clear if funding would be available for the grant-subsidized program to continue. So Amy Shafron helped create a similar program to debut Jan. ‘0 at the Bergen County YJCC in Washington Township.

With instances of autism on the rise, two such programs in North Jersey will likely be welcomed by parents, said Barbara Zitcer, early childhood/kindergarten enrichment director at the Wayne Y.

The eight-week pilot program at the YJCC, dubbed "Sunday FUNday," will meet every other week for two hours, starting at 10:30 a.m. Jan. ‘0. Geared toward autistic 3- to 8-year-olds — including those with Asperger’s syndrome — the program will be directed by Lisa Lawler. Her experience in the field includes behavior specialization, in-home therapy, and early intervention.

"This program prioritizes social skills," said Lawler. "Children on the autistic spectrum have a great deal of trouble with socialization. We have selected four recreational activities: cooking and snack, art, music, and movement. Each of these activities will provide fun forums for the children to practice social skills such as greeting peers, asking and responding, sharing, and paying attention."

"Children who participate in school-based programs have only so many of their needs addressed," added Gina Wellington, assistant director of youth services and special needs coordinator at the YJCC. "They need living and social skills on a regular basis. Although most of these kids are very bright, they don’t understand the nuances of their behavior. The sooner they start working on these skills the better their chances for success in life."

Shafron, a Wyckoff resident, is particularly excited about the "snack attack" segment, because although there are several cooking schools for children in North Jersey, none are appropriate for children with autism. "They will cook and make their own snacks," she said. "It’s so novel; I have never seen anything like it."

Jason Shafron took Noah to an orientation session for Sunday FUNday and said his son "seemed to be really engaged in the whole process. He liked moving from class to class and being with other kids. In gymnastics he was really pushing it; he did a whole obstacle course."

The Shafrons said the program is beneficial not only for their son but also for themselves and their 4-year-old, Ezra. "I look around at my friends with kids, and they’re all doing family activities that are harder for us to do, so it’s such a blessing that these programs are available now," said Amy Shafron, "even just so that the parents can have two hours to spend with their other kids or to work out at the Y. There are so few breaks for us. "

Sunday FUNday can accommodate a maximum of ‘4 children — four groups of up to six children, each supervised by a specialist and two assistants. Lawler and the other specialists are trained in Applied Behavior Analysis, a widely used educational approach for autistic children.

The program costs $400 for eight sessions, for both members and non-members. For more information or to register, contact Wellington at (’01) 666-6610, ext. ’68, or


Sunday Friends and Fun, now in its eighth year, meets every Sunday from 10:30 to 1′:30. Children participate in 30-minute classes in music, art, physical education, and social skills, each under the direction of a special-education professional along with a support staff of college and high school students.

"These professionals include teachers, behaviorists, social workers, and occupational and music therapists who work with autistic children," said Zitcer. "During the two hours, we provide a Parents’ Room with a clinical social worker to facilitate information sharing and group support. We also have a bimonthly sibling support group."

Sunday Friends and Fun, which can accommodate 36 children, costs $315 for 10 sessions for both members and non-members; the support groups are free. Registration is open until Jan. ‘7. Call Zitcer at (973) 595-0100, ext. ’47 or e-mail her at for details and application forms.

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