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Autistic teens thrive in Ephrata girls group

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Program teaches important social and grooming skills

Barlet Wilbert, left, Judy Holt and Jennifer Petrilla
Judy Holt, center, reacts as she sees her flower develop with the help of Barlet Wilbert, occupational therapist, left, and Jennifer Petrilla, occupational therapy student, right, during a teen girls autism group for girls 13 and older at Crossroads Rehab in Ephrata.

Teenage girls with autism are finding help and acceptance in the Girls Group, a special program of Ephrata Community Hospital.

The program teaches important social and grooming skills, all in a friendly, judgment-free environment.

“Most girls learn quickly by watching their moms or older sisters, but girls on the autism spectrum have to learn differently,” said occupational therapist Barlet Wilbert.

Wilbert founded the Girls Group nearly three years ago. Her inspiration was a painfully shy 17-year-old who struggled to get washed and dressed.

“It just killed me that insurance wouldn’t pay for this young adult to learn how to do these basic things,” she said. “I thought it would be good for her to learn with other girls who were having the same difficulties.”

Each 90-minute session focuses on a new skill, such as dental care. As the girls advance, their lessons become more challenging, like ordering a meal in a restaurant or balancing a checkbook.

“In the first week everyone is shy and I’m taking the lead, but then their comfort level typically improves,” Wilbert explained. “It’s a big deal because these girls aren’t used to being accepted.”

When the lesson is finished, the girls are free to discuss a fun topic. Popular subjects include makeup, hair care and fingernail painting.

After six weeks the group completes its studies. Many girls exchange phone numbers — an encouraging sign since autistic kids often struggle to form friendships. Some even return to become mentors in new groups.

“It really builds their confidence to know they’re helping somebody,” Wilbert said. “Usually they are on the other end of that, always feeling like they need help with everything.”

Her star mentor is the once-reclusive girl who inspired the program. Now 19, she returns for every new group, showing greater confidence each time.

When she came back two weeks ago, she was initiating conversations with the other girls and taking on a leadership role,” Wilbert said. “It was amazing to see how far she had come.”

Autism is five times more common in boys, so Wilbert and her colleagues are currently considering a Boys Group. As with girls, the key will be getting them to open up, she said.

“They just need an environment where they are less likely to be judged by their peers.”

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