As thousands of children across the area recently started school, they were excited and nervous about their new teachers and classmates.

As thousands of children across the area recently started school, they were excited and nervous about their new teachers and classmates. But as the days and weeks progress, most kids will become comfortable in their classrooms and make new friends.

For children with special needs, it is not that simple. Many lack the basic social development to make a friend, but with the help of social skill therapy and hard work, some are making tremendous progress.

Many special-needs children, especially those with autism, have trouble seeing the big picture. They are just experiencing little parts of the picture at any given time, according to Dr. Emilio Amigo, a clinical psychologist. "It is hard to get along with others or to understand what is expected during a social experience because they are not able to put all of the factors together and understand what is expected," said Amigo, who works with approximately 150 individuals on the autism spectrum through social skills therapy groups called Friendship Clubs.

"Because these individuals are, by nature, avoidant of a social interaction, I believe that one of the best things we [can] do is to establish experiences with other individuals around their developmental age. It is a regular commitment of learning how to interrelate with other people and it triggers or stimulates the development of the social function," said Amigo.

Maureen Hoey, educational director of the Learning Spectrum, runs a similar program. "Children with special needs face challenges understanding the social rules of behavior. Generally, they lack knowledge about appropriate social responses and have little understanding of unwritten rules of social conduct," she said.

Hoey thinks kids with special needs benefit from having social skills broken down and taught to them in a direct instruction approach. Social skills groups are led by an instructor who helps guide groups through social experiences, including modeling, rehearsal and practice activities.

During the sessions, children learn skills that are useful with their family and school environment.

Ginny Bryan, mother of three boys including one son with autism, has been very pleased with her son's progress through Amigo's Friendship Club. "They have worked on improving eye contact, taking turns, responding to others' initiations, compromising, helping others, sharing, knowing when to stop talking, how to read people's non-verbal cues, empathizing, role playing and generalization skills. These are all things that come naturally to typical kids," said Bryan. She also advises parents to take their special needs children into the community so they can practice interacting with others.

Kathy Montag, mother of a young daughter with Turner Syndrome said, "Most kids really don't have to learn social rules because they just pick them up as they grow and develop. Many special needs kids need cut-and-dried training to navigate through conversations, group situations and free play. In a social skills class, children learn to interact with other people in a way that most children develop naturally."

Amigo stresses his work on social functioning which can include awareness of others along with tolerance, frustration components and engagement skills. "Some of our clients have gone to prom, they have friends calling them to come over for sleepovers, participate in athletic teams and text each other on cell phones," he added.

"Many of the typical students within a classroom may be curious, confused or anxious about being around children with special needs and come to the class with preconceived notions. Support and acceptance from the top down is important in developing a school culture that is accepting of those who have different needs," said Hoey.

Montag believes that children are naturally accepting of kids with special needs, they just need someone to let them know that there is "something there" and what that child's strengths and weaknesses are. Montag has explained to children that sometimes her daughter gets nervous or uneasy and they work on simple strategies to help her through difficulties. "Because they have been given ideas of 'what to say' or 'how to say it,' her classmates have been empowered to get involved. Kids like to know that they are able to make a difference--when they are respectfully treated as part of a solution, it validates their own place in the classroom and it is good for their self-esteem," she said.

Encouraging typical children with these opportunities allows them to develop understanding, compassion and appreciation for people different from themselves.

Pattie Stechschulte is a freelance magazine writer living in Westerville with her husband, Steve, and two sons, Will and Jack.