How can book clubs benefit young adults with autism?Jun 10, 2014
Scot: One of the challenges for young adults with autism is the lack of ability to socialize and engage in more culturally appropriate activities. A book club might be the answer. We'll examine that next on The Scope.
Announcer: Medical news and research from University of Utah physicians and specialists you can use for a happier and healthier life. You're listening to The Scope.
Scot: A book club for individuals with autism, what are the benefits? How can you set one up? We're going to find out right now. We're talking with Joseph Viskochil. He's ran book clubs for individuals with autism. This started out when you were in school, that's when you discovered this. Tell me a little bit about that.
Joseph Viskochil: Yes, indeed. This was the brainchild of Dr. Megan Farley who's the clinical psychologist that used to be here. She has since left to go to Wisconsin. She had this great idea that adults with autism, the services for them are quite limited after they age out of public school settings, so why not start a book group.
Scot: What was the thought by starting, out of all the activities one could start, why a book group?
Joseph Viskochil: It's very straightforward. It's culturally appropriate. They can be proud of saying I went to book group last week. It's not like a therapeutic social skills group where they have to sort of hide it.
Scot: Yeah, because if you say that there's a stigma attached to it.
Joseph Viskochil: There is a stigma, but a book group, that could be anything. That also serves the purpose of starting future conversations down the road. They say to somebody that they meet oh, I went to my book group last week. What did you read? It starts a whole series of communication.
Scot: Got you, got you. Tell me what you discovered when you started the book group.
Joseph Viskochil: Initially, we had four or five folks and we were all a little bit worried that they wouldn't come consistently. What we found is that it has blossomed. We average about 20 to 30 individuals that come to our book group every month.
Scot: Got you. To what do you attribute that success?
Joseph Viskochil: That it's so much fun. It's a blast. It's one of the things I look forward to the most in my month.
Scot: What types of books are you reading generally?
Joseph Viskochil: There's a variation. We always pick two books just to accommodate personal preferences and reading level. There's usually one that's either about World War II or science fiction, and there's usually one that's a little bit lower reading level. The goal is so everyone can find a book that they want to talk about, and if it's been made into a movie, even better, less reading.
Scot: Yeah, sure.
Joseph Viskochil: Just to come and discuss sort of this mutually focused on topic for a little bit.
Scot: You said it might be World War II or science fiction. Are those the categories you stick in most of the time?
Joseph Viskochil: We don't stick with a category per se. The way the voting works is any member can nominate a book. At the end of the book group everyone can nominate a book, then we vote on it democratically. We always pick two books so that you can pick and choose which one. It's based on the interests and the nominations, which usually include science fiction, World War II, and some others. Those are big ones.
Scot: What are some of the recent books? Do you have the titles?
Joseph Viskochil: We met last night. This month we are reading "Sherlock Holmes" by Arthur Conan Doyle.
Scot: Oh, wow, that's cool.
Joseph Viskochil: Yeah. We're also reading I believe it's called "The Island of the Blue Dolphins." We thought initially that we would always have one book that was about autism or being on the spectrum. We started with "Look Me in the Eye" by John Elder Robison. What we found is that those types of books tend to make generalizing statements, and people with autism don't always want to be put in this category or feel like this one person's life story is similar to theirs. We've gotten away from that and into more wide variety.
Scot: Tell me what changes have you noticed in the individuals that have come into the book club, say, fast forward a few months.
Joseph Viskochil: Initially, when anyone comes they're usually very quiet, and I'm on the fence about pushing them and trying to bring them out of their shell or letting them come around on their own time. Typically, it takes about two to three months for an individual to come around and start really interacting, but once they do they start to get involved. They start to form a little group that they can talk with, that they feel comfortable with. They sort of form these friendships. Not all of them meet outside of book group, but some of them do. That's a perk. That's one of the huge benefits.
Scot: What improvements in socialization skills have you seen or conversation skills?
Joseph Viskochil: One of the things that's kind of tricky is knowing when it's okay to be really funny and when it's okay to try to be serious. Usually, what'll happen is when we start discussing it we try to have a more structured conversation. Eventually, it sort of fades into more joking, more laughing, getting off on tangents. It's learning how to be able to recognize when it's okay to make those jokes, to get off on those tangents and diversions, and when it's more focused speaking time.
Scot: Is that a social skill that people with autism struggle with?
Joseph Viskochil: Absolutely.
Scot: Got you. What other benefits have you noticed?
Joseph Viskochil: Laughing, smiling, these are things that we all take for granted. Having a good time on a good Thursday night, these are things that a lot of us take for granted that aren't always available to folks on the spectrum, either because they don't really want to leave the house or because they don't know where to go to find that. The book club offers a meaningful activity for them to come and enjoy themselves.
Scot: It sounds like a great idea. If I was interested in setting one up, are there some tips you would have?
Joseph Viskochil: Absolutely. You've got to commit. That's the first issue. You have to commit to the book group. You can't say I'm going to do this, I might read the book, I might read half the book. You've got to be committed to the group fully, because the members take stock in that. They look at you, whether or not you say that. They know if you're committed or not.
Scot: As the leader, you have to do that, is that what you're saying?
Joseph Viskochil: Absolutely.
Joseph Viskochil: And, you've got to be willing to reach out and really try to get people in as less intrusive as you can but still making that contact. Because a lot of folks will come one or two times, but if they don't feel like there's some force pulling them back they'll just not show up again.
Scot: The leader, does it need to be somebody without autism, or could somebody with autism lead one of these groups?
Joseph Viskochil: That's a very difficult question, because there is such a variation of the spectrum. Ideally, it does require quite a bit of social tact to be able to balance different personalities, so I don't know. I wouldn't say that it can't be someone with autism, but it helps to be able to look at a lot of different relationships, and balance the group, and be able to push forward with communication and socialization.
Scot: Any other things that somebody that might be considering? I mean you could go to the Internet and most likely find out how do you start a book club, what are some considerations, what kind of questions should you ask. That would apply to everybody, I'd imagine.
Joseph Viskochil: Yeah. I'll throw in a pitch here. If you go to the Utah autism research partnership website you can find a document I wrote that includes all of these different bullet points for how to run a book group. It's got different tips on how to do so.
One thing I would also recommend is always having food, because it really helps get conversation going, it makes it a little bit less awkward. Sometimes we end up waiting for the pizza to arrive for a little bit, and that's some of the toughest ten minutes you can have.
Scot: Really? What do you think is going on there?
Joseph Viskochil: Well, just not knowing. It's also part of the routine. You come in. You get your plate. You get your piece of pizza. You go sit down. You can talk while you're eating. Without the pizza, you come in, you sit down, the routine is interrupted, and you're just kind of looking around like what do we talk about now.
Scot: Again, that routine is important for individuals with autism to have this, this, this, and this.
Joseph Viskochil: Absolutely.
Scot: Got you. Any final thoughts? This is a fascinating topic. It sounds like a fun thing to do that has a lot of benefits.
Joseph Viskochil: Another benefit we haven't gone over yet is the benefit to the parents. Oftentimes, these individuals are not driving themselves. Even if they are taking the bus independently, they like to come because it's late at night. It's in Research Park. It's hard to get to. Their parents come with them.
Initially, we weren't sure if we wanted parents to come, but we ended up seeing okay, there's this one parent that says they're probably on the spectrum but they've just never been evaluated. They want to come, too. Then, we opened the door for all parents. What we found is it normalizes the experience for the parents. It gives them an increased support system because they talk, meet outside of the group, get to know each other, get to know each other's children and their experiences. It has really been beneficial to the parents.
Announcer: We're your daily dose of science, conversation, medicine. This is The Scope, University of Utah Health Sciences Radio.