It started last spring, when Joe Cassara, about to finish his junior year at Wentzville's Holt High School, sent an email to Jeanne Eichler, an occupational therapist at St. Louis University.
"I want to learn how to make friends," Joe wrote.
During elementary school, Joe had lots of friends. They were like him — silly and obnoxious. They liked cartoons, rough-housing and toys.
"I was the happiest kid in the world," said Joe, now 18 and living in Lake Saint Louis.
But as time went on, he felt like he wasn't growing up as fast as everyone else. He wasn't interested in what they were. He was confused in conversations.
When he was 8 years old, Joe was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder that affects a person's ability to socialize and communicate with others. It's characterized by social awkwardness and an all-absorbing interest in specific topics — a double whammy for the already socially trying times of being a teenager.
"Kids are different in middle school. I couldn't relate to them," Joe said. "I tried to be cool like that, but that wasn't good. Kids were making fun of me."
Joe would get mad. He got suspended for fighting and making threats. He saw no point in doing school work. In high school, he got depressed.
"I started to realize I had no real friends or anything," he said.
He spent his Friday nights playing video games or watching movies. His father, also named Joe Cassara, feared he was losing his ability to communicate with others even more.
His son wasn't invited to parties and didn't have a group to hang out with. "I know what I had growing up and saw that he didn't have it," his father said.
Like many youths with Asperger's, Joe was getting discouraged.
"Often, these kids set very high standards for themselves and beat themselves up when they don't succeed," Eichler said. "They are frustrated after a negative social interaction when they don't know what they did wrong or what to do to improve."
FRIENDSHIP BOOT CAMP
Looking for help led Joe as far as the UCLA Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills, a 14-week friendship boot camp for teens with higher-functioning autism disorders. Joe was ready to stay with a relative in Los Angeles, but facilitators said it would be better to find something close to home. Important relationships often continued among participants.
Joe heard SLU might offer a similar program. He reached out to Eichler, wondering if she could help.
Eichler didn't tell him the university only has a social skills intervention for children, not for teens. She didn't tell him she couldn't find anything he was looking for. She couldn't just turn him away.
"We were really touched by his story," Eichler said. "When a teen comes forth and says he's having difficulty, and I need help with this. It was hard to refuse."
She sent emails to gauge interest and got more than 100 responses from parents eager to find resources for their teens.
She interviewed Joe, asking him how often he left his house and about his grades, his friends and his struggles. Eichler worked with a graduate student to create a six-week program — Teen Connection — using Joe's answers as guidance.
"We were able to organize a program really based on what he was telling us he needed," she said.
Teen Connection started last summer with just six participants and a handful of undergraduate volunteers. The fall session grew to 10 teens, and the spring session had 17 with as many as 30 volunteers involved. Joe attended all three.
The next session starts June 13. Each session has evolved to better meet the teens' needs.
"We know this is a population that desperately needs support and creative intervention," Eichler said.
The only help offered for kids with higher-functioning autism often involves pulling them out of class to practice social skills, Eichler learned. "They hate it. It's not helpful. You're basically putting a bunch of socially awkward people together."
In developing the Teen Connection program, Eichler was drawn to a book written by two successful autistic adults: "The Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships." The authors distilled their life lessons into 10 rules such as "Know when you are turning people off" and "Not everything is equally important in the grand scheme of things."
Eichler liked the idea of learning rules to bend the rules, such as how honesty is different from diplomacy. "They are black and white in the way that they think," she said. "They are not into gray areas, and society is all about gray areas."
Eichler placed the teens in real-life situations to practice their new rules, such as sending them to the zoo where they were to ask for directions, talk to a zookeeper and stop someone to take their photograph.
Joe said he wanted to know how to start conversations, work in a group and manage his frustrations. So the program involved holding a dance party, making pizzas together at a restaurant and learning basket weaving.
The key, Eichler says, is the undergraduate volunteers who participate alongside the teens in activities. They model appropriate behavior and are safe and accepting sounding boards.
Joe looked forward to the weekly sessions for that very reason, his dad said. "The kids from the university talk to them as equals," Cassara said.
The parents also met together during the sessions. They shared concerns and advice about their teenager driving, dating, going to college and keeping a job, Cassara said. "We looked forward to going as much as the kids looked forward to going."
With each session, the teens grew more confident. Joe said his favorite "lesson" was the dance, where they made a circle and took turns dancing in the middle. "Everyone had fun at that party," he said. "No one was left out."
Some of the teens reported attending homecoming for the first time, going on dates and having friends over. Joe said he still struggles. Prom didn't work out. He had no big plans for graduation. Most of his conversations were in the weight room with fellow wrestlers, where he could talk about working out.
But the program helped him to stop being so hard on himself. "I'm learning," he said.
He's realized things aren't always how you expect them to be. He will get turned down. He will lose. He will try and fail. He will have to work hard.
But that doesn't mean he should stop trying. "I used to be like, if I can't be friends with this person or if that girl doesn't like me, then I just won't talk to anyone," he said.
At lunch, he tried sitting with the popular kids, then the class clowns before feeling OK with the baseball players, he said. "Before, I'd be sitting by myself and eating by myself."
He learned he has to do things he doesn't want to do to reach his goals. He went the whole year without being tardy or getting in trouble. He made the honor roll and earned a varsity letter in wrestling.
He earned a Pell Grant and tutored children to pay his way to St. Charles Community College. He is going back to Teen Connection this summer, this time as a volunteer, teaching kids about exercise and nutrition. He applied for a job at McDonald's.
He's grown up, his parents say.
Said his mom, Dawn Cassara, "The SLU program really helped him because it let him see let him see there's another world out there beyond high school, that he can have friends."