December 07, 2016

New program focuses on adolescents, adults with autism

by Christi Mathis

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A unique new program for high-functioning adolescents and adults with autism spectrum disorders is coming to the region courtesy of Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

Club 57, established by the College of Education and Human Services’ Rehabilitation Institute, is free, open to all who fit the criteria, and accepting registrations now.

About one in 68 children is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and each year 55,000 people with autism turn 18, Ruth Anne Rehfeldt, professor of behavior analysis and therapy at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, said. Depression and anxiety occur at very high rates among children with autism as they enter adolescence and adulthood, while unemployment and avoidance of social relationships are also common, she said. Many people with autism crave relationships but simply don’t know how to overcome their social difficulties.

That’s what Club 57 is all about.

“It’s a fun, activity-based behavioral treatment program for adolescents and adults with high- functioning autism. We want to give them adaptive skills to help them meet the challenges they will encounter as they go through junior high, high school and become adults,” Rehfeldt said.

Participants will meet once or twice weekly at the Autism Research and Treatment Center, located in the Wham building on the SIU campus. They will enjoy a wide variety of activities. Group board games, flashlight tag, special projects, an occasional outing for bowling or other events, or even outdoor fun when the weather allows are all possibilities. Embedded within each session will be therapeutic elements of behavioral treatment to promote flexible thinking. 

“Using the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) model, we will implement behavioral interventions to enhance their social, emotional and psychological flexibility. Essentially, we’re promoting flexible thinking that helps people deal with problematic thought patterns,” Rehfeldt said. “Participants will learn to handle the thought patterns that lead to depression and obsessive behaviors and to set goals and realize what’s important so even when the problematic thought patterns arise, they won’t become entangled in them but can focus and work toward their goals. The program also includes social skills elements to enable participants to enhance their interactions with other people.”

ACT has proven very successful in treating depression, PTSD, work burnout and other issues during various clinical trials. Faculty and students from SIU’s behavior analysis and therapy program are modifying and adapting the ACT model specifically for those with autism. Rehfeldt said the new clinical services initiative will benefit participants and the community while also providing SIU students valuable hands-on learning experience and research opportunities.

Undergraduate and graduate students are creating and implementing the Club 57 programming. Doctoral and advanced master’s degree students will have primary oversight, under the direction of Rehfeldt, Andrea Mazo and William B. Root. Mazo and Root are doctoral students and board-certified behavior analysts from St. Louis and Olympia, Wash., respectively, who are serving as the Club 57 coordinators.

Club 57 is open to all high-functioning adolescents and adults age 12 or older who are highly verbal and have an IQ of about 85 or higher, Rehfeldt said. The participants will be grouped on the basis of age, interests and needs and each small group will include no more than three or four people, along with multiple SIU students. Scheduling will be determined based on the needs of the program participants. The sessions will begin the week of Jan. 22, 2017.

For more information about Club 57, or to register a participant, call 618/453-6411 or email or

Club 57 dovetails with the increasing focus on student training and professional development of students taking place at the Autism Research and Treatment Center. Plans next semester also call for establishment of “Think Tank” sessions to foster cross-campus collaboration to benefit the autistic community and its needs and concerns as well as a public Autism Lecture Series.