Social Steps An SLP moved her social skills groups to a fitness center to offer clients engaging real-world experiences and the added bonus of motor-skills development. In the Limelight
In the Limelight  |   December 01, 2016
Social Steps
Author Notes
  • Shelley D. Hutchins is content producer/editor for The ASHA Leader.
    Shelley D. Hutchins is content producer/editor for The ASHA Leader.×
Article Information
Language Disorders / Social Communication & Pragmatics Disorders / In the Limelight
In the Limelight   |   December 01, 2016
Social Steps
The ASHA Leader, December 2016, Vol. 21, 26-27. doi:10.1044/leader.LML.21122016.26
The ASHA Leader, December 2016, Vol. 21, 26-27. doi:10.1044/leader.LML.21122016.26
Name: Susan M. Abrams, MA, CCC-SLP
Title: Founder and director, Center for Communication and Learning
Hometown: Rockville, Maryland
Over coffee in 2007, speech-language pathologist Susan Abrams told local gym owner Marc Sickel she wanted a place for her social skills group—five boys with social challenges—to apply their skills outside of treatment. Sickel owns Fitness for Health in Rockville, Maryland, an unusual 4,400-square-foot facility offering exergaming (mixing exercise with video games), a glow-in-the dark climbing wall and gym, a laser maze, a 30-foot trampoline, and a 3-D virtual reality gaming system.
Fitness for Health also offers physical and occupational therapy for people with special needs, as well adults and athletes. Sickel felt he and Abrams shared a common mission to help those with disabilities learn through physical movement, so they formed a partnership, and Abrams launched the first week-long session.
Abrams enjoys building partnerships—like this one with Sickel—because they allow her to expand her programming. A diverse, decades-long professional background—working on a cleft palate team, treating people with developmental disorders, operating a private practice, earning a second master’s degree in counseling, and completing Michelle Garcia Winner’s Social Thinking training program—gives Abrams the experience and professional tools to generate such inventive ideas.
Perhaps these quests for varied treatment approaches and community collaboration partly stem from her caffeine intake. “All my ideas begin over a cup of Starbucks,” she says. “It’s my go-to for brainstorming and making connections.”
All the right moves
The initial idea—a way to get five boys into a real-world setting for a few days—has grown over 10 years into multiple weeks of themed summer program for clients with social learning challenges from preschool through high school. Abrams integrates the social thinking vocabulary concepts for each weekly program to fit with the gym’s varied spaces, such as social adventure, social curiosity and wonder. Specially trained gym staff and SLPs from Abrams’ private practice lead each course and focus on teaching the “why” behind social skills during the half day-long sessions. Last summer, Abrams offered five different sessions, and she launched a school-year program for preschoolers.
“We use the gym facilities as part of the social piece with the additional benefit of integrating motor-skill development,” Abrams says. Hosting groups in these interesting spaces generates dynamic activities. In one class, she might instruct participants to scale the climbing wall, select a picture of someone in the class taped to the top, climb back down and ask their peer a question about themselves (for example, “Do you like Pokémon?”). Abrams then helps the kids use their information about shared interests to start forming connections.
Combining movement with social skills lessons helps students work on turn-taking, nonverbal social interaction, cooperation, attention and more. Abrams also trains the gym’s fitness staff how to best interact with the students, so when they receive guidance on successfully scaling a wall, they also get language or social skills worked into the instruction.

“Friday nights are hard for [teens with social challenges]. We provide a place where they come and don’t see it as treatment, but a fun, safe environment to engage and interact.”

A hangout with benefits
Abrams continues to expand the options and age ranges for her social skills/movement combo programs, including a Friday night teen hangout she began last spring. For two hours, teens with social challenges come together to practice social skills and, well, hang. The sessions begin with instruction on social thinking concepts, followed by facilitated team-building activities. Next, teens try generalizing these skills while interacting with their peers in the laser maze, glow-in-the-dark gym or other fun spaces.
At these Friday hangouts, students get social coaching and a place to meet new people facing similar challenges. Different from most social skills groups, this program includes helping participants learn how to reach out to other members and make plans outside of sessions. The inaugural teen hangout offering was wildly popular, which Abrams attributes to the lack of opportunities for this age group.
“Friday nights are hard for all teens,” Abrams says. “We provide a place where they come and don’t see it as treatment, but a fun, safe environment to engage and interact.”
Abrams is also developing a training program for parents of children with social issues. She’s always encouraged parents to get involved in their child’s treatment and already presents free parent workshops. However, she’ll open this upcoming course to all parents—not just those of her clients—and hopes it will help parents better guide their children.
The passion for continually expanding and creating new programs and partnerships, Abrams says, “is all about helping children to go out there and apply these skills in their daily lives.”
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December 2016
Volume 21, Issue 12