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Program helps adults with developmental disabilities

WENDY MAEDA/GLOBE STAFF

Michaela Turner, Sam Wood, Andrew Horton, and Erin Maloney (foreground) took part in a workshop on facial expressions at Bridgewater State University. The Self-Advocacy Leadership Series classes have expanded steadily.

WENDY MAEDA/GLOBE STAFF

Ashley McMeekin, 20, acted out a warm embrace of a family member.

BRIDGEWATER - Sasha Cotter knew the answer, felt it wash over her as soon as the teacher asked the question. But it was hard to find the right words and harder still to say them in front of the class.

“What is it like when you feel shy?’’ the teacher, Sandy Houghton, asked again.

“You feel nervous?’’ Cotter asked in a soft voice. Houghton smiled and nodded.

“And you’re scared,’’ said Cotter, 19, surer this time.

She is among a dozen students in Houghton’s class, which helps adults with developmental disabilities build confidence, improve social and communication skills, and become more independent.

Houghton, a disability advocate who has cerebral palsy, founded the program nine years ago and has since trained more than 250 people across Massachusetts, some of whom have gone on to become advocates themselves.

Called the Self-Advocacy Leadership Series, the classes have steadily expanded in recent years and are now held six times a year. In response to growing demand, Houghton plans to offer more classes, particularly for young adults, and is training other teachers to run classes.

“They are learning the craft from us,’’ she said.

Dan Shannon, who directs the Massachusetts Developmental Disabilities Council, which runs the classes, believes it is the only leadership program for people with developmental disabilities in the country. He said the program addresses a critical need - dedicated training for social skills - at a pivotal time.

“It’s the missing piece for students coming into adulthood,’’ he said. “It’s the perfect time for parents to see the potential their child has.’’

Through a series of classes involving small-group discussions and role-playing exercises, students practice social interactions and speaking in public, and gradually become more self-assured. Some make transformative strides during the 10-week program.

“When they start out, many are shy and very quiet,’’ said Houghton. “But as they get more comfortable, it builds on itself.’’

Parents are often amazed by the change in their children and by what they are able to accomplish by graduation, when students make presentations before an audience. For parents and students alike, the program can expand their sense of what is possible.

“I can’t underestimate the impact it can have,’’ Shannon said.

The council, he said, hopes to double the number of classes offered across the state.

The class at Bridgewater State, which has a waiting list, is tailored to students who are nearing the end of high school and preparing for adult life. Many will go on to live in group homes or in apartments with varying levels of supervision.

At last week’s class, Houghton focused on communication skills, reminding the students to speak clearly and maintain eye contact and providing tips on reading facial expressions and body language.

“Every movement we make is a form of communication,’’ Houghton told the students. In small groups, students were asked to act out various emotions without speaking.

WENDY MAEDA/GLOBE STAFF

Kevin Figueroa arm-wrestled in a workshop on gesturing during a class for developmentally disabled adults at Bridgewater State University this month.F

Kevin Figueroa, 19, was momentarily stumped when asked to convey happiness. But when a teacher had him imagine the Red Sox winning the pennant, he understood in a flash, leaping to his feet with arms outstretched.

An upbeat, reassuring presence, Houghton showed students ways to express interest during a conversation and made a point of getting the quieter students involved.

“I understand what they deal with, what they go through, because I have a disability myself,’’ she said.

Beyond the practical advice, teachers made a point of boosting students’ confidence by having them name a few of their strengths. One said she liked to ski and juggle; another said he was good at computers and could curl his tongue.

“Those are awesome gifts and talents,’’ Houghton said. “We need to recognize those and hang on to those.’’

Some students looked down as they spoke, and teachers gently urged them to raise their voices and meet their looks.

As the class went on, some students seemed to gain confidence. When asked what it felt like to be shy, Wendy Griffin, 18, fiddled nervously with her earrings and shrugged her shoulders.

But Houghton was patient, and after a moment’s reflection Griffin said that “your heart races.’’

When Houghton asked the whole class whether they had been shy before, they said yes in unison. They agreed that shyness made it harder to talk to people and to make friends.

For much of the class, Griffin had stayed quiet, her eyes fixed on her notebook. But after she admitted to feeling shy, she sat up taller, and lifted her sights. She laughed some, and when Houghton asked if anyone felt frustrated sometimes, she quickly chimed in.

“Oh, yeah,’’ she said with a bright-eyed smile.

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.
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