NORWELL — It’s a late-winter Saturday afternoon, and the Skills for Living center on Accord Park Drive is bustling. The front door is constantly swinging open with parents coming and going, some with children in tow; two mothers are chatting in the waiting room; and teenagers are draped over conference room chairs, just hanging out.
“It wasn’t my intention to start a community center, but it looks like that’s happening!” said Katy Shamitz, founder and director of the social learning program, standing amid the controlled chaos.
Shamitz’ vision six years ago was to teach social skills to children and young adults with social learning disabilities. Children with Asperger’s syndrome or autism can have difficulty interpreting social cues and interacting with peers, she said, making it hard to make friends and fit in. So, Shamitz, a Quincy resident who worked as a school counselor in the Norwell school system until her first child was born, decided she could use her expertise and perhaps fill a need.
“I thought I was going to be a stay-at-home mom, but that lasted eight weeks,” she said, recalling her start.
Shamitz began teaching social skills in children’s homes — at first running her business out of her PT Cruiser.
Today, Skills for Living operates out of a large space in an office park just off Route 3 and has become a family business. Shamitz’ husband, Rob, recently left his job as a mechanical engineer at Bluefin Robotics, a Quincy-based developer of underwater vehicles, and now runs science and engineering workshops for teens attending Skills for Living. They recently built a working hovercraft and routinely take apart small appliances to learn how the machines work. The couple’s two young children also come to the center on weekends and play with the children who attend.
Shamitz’ staff of seven teachers and three administrative assistants — all of them from the south suburbs — have varied backgrounds in disciplines such as occupational and speech therapy, counseling, art therapy, nursing, and education. She said she has studied Michelle Garcia Winner’s “Social Thinking” curriculum, a popular treatment framework for children with social learning disabilities that helps them understand what people around them are thinking and mold their actions accordingly.
The staff is also trained in the curriculum and threads it throughout social skills classes and the more informal drop-in groups, which are centered on games such as Pokemon, Lego, and Minecraft, a popular virtual construction game. The games are hugely popular with the children and teenagers who attend and encourage interaction and collaboration.
“A bunch of these kids just need a place to fit in, especially the older kids,” said Shamitz, adding that by building a place where youngsters can fit in and socialize, she has also created an opportunity for parents to connect, which can be difficult for parents with children with special needs.
“If young kids have a hard time connecting, so do their parents,” she said. “It’s been very rewarding to see the families and kids make connections and friendships.”
Joanne Puskar of Carver was looking for a place for her 12-year-old son, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, and Asperger’s, to socialize outside of the typical, cliquey middle school environment. He started coming to Skills for Living, she said, and “it’s the one and only activity that I don’t have to pull teeth to get him out of the house for.”
His favorite activity is the drop-in Minecraft group. After his first day, said Puskar, her son told her, “ ‘The kids here are just like me.’ ”
Aileen Buckley said her 13-year-old son, who has Asperger’s, was struggling to make friends, and she was setting up play dates to help him, but it wasn’t working. “We wanted a program that wasn’t clinical and would help him make friends on his own,” she said. So far for mother and son, Skills for Living has been a success.
“He loves it,” said Buckley, who lives in Dorchester.
Dania Jekel, executive director of the Asperger’s Association of New England, based in Watertown, said a sense of belonging is crucial for every child, but it can be elusive for children with Asperger’s syndrome or autism.
“It’s important that these children find a set of compatible peers who don’t tease them and have similar interests,” she said. “And this may not happen in a public school setting. Many kids with Asperger’s can feel isolated.”
Jekel speaks favorably of programs such as Skills for Living as viable alternatives for families who can afford them. The sessions can add up: At Skills for Living, where Shamitz says she has priced the programs so they are accessible to most, the social skills classes are $35 each, and drop-in groups are $12. Neither is covered by insurance.
“There’s definitely a two-tiered system in Massachusetts of families who can afford these programs and families who can’t,” said Jekel, adding that the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism provides her organization with grants that it then distributes as scholarships for families to enroll in social skills programs and other activities.
The organization also offers parent support groups and workshops, as well as game nights and teen events in various places around the state, including Canton and Plymouth. Among others, Massachusetts General Hospital’s Aspire program runs social skills groups for children and young adults with autism, and Second Nature Social Skills in Plymouth, a for-profit business like Skills for Living, also uses Garcia Winner’s social thinking framework.
On this Saturday afternoon, three boys are hanging out with Janet Daley, leader of the Teen Boys group, a social skills class. Hanging over the front desk of the center is a large blackboard with the words: “We are so happy you’re here. You are clever and no one thinks just like you. You are unique, no one else sees with your eyes. You are kind. You matter.”
David McGrath, a 17-year old from Weymouth, says he likes the Teen Boys group because “we have conversations with each other.”
This day the boys played the party game Apples to Apples, in which players make funny comparisons. Daley says she played the game with a dose of sarcasm to teach the teens how to differentiate between a genuine comment and a sarcastic one. They then started planning a bake sale to raise funds for the center’s new gym floor.
“The planning process teaches them that stuff doesn’t just happen,” Daley says.
Besides the weekly Teen Boys group, the youths also connect with their peers on Teen Nights, held every Friday. Shamitz started them because, she said, “Every teen should have the opportunity to make plans on a Friday night.”
Each week there’s a different theme or activity, such as bingo night or movie night. One teen who attends Skills for Living is a “Seinfeld” fan and suggested celebrating Festivus, a secular holiday featured in the TV comedy. On the show the characters had a Festivus dinner and had a plain aluminum Festivus pole in place of a Christmas tree.
“We were sitting around the Festivus pole, eating meatloaf! We do a lot of quirky things,” said Shamitz. “There’s a phenomenal sense of community.”
While many of the children and young adults who attend Skills for Living have a social learning disability, she said she and her staff don’t get caught up in an individual’s diagnosis. Instead, they focus on his or her strengths and weaknesses, as well as interests.
“You don’t put a Star Wars kid with a Star Trek kid,” said Shamitz. “We group them very carefully, and most kids are happy to be here.”