One recent morning at Covington Elementary School in Los Altos, dozens of children gathered to watch the story of how three puppets named Freddie, Crystal and Angela became friends.
Freddie sat hidden behind his laptop busily working away. Crystal, energetic and gregarious, danced for the crowd, while a teacher puppet -- a goose named Mrs. Beaks -- and a classroom aide called Monkey Bones facilitated the friendship.
"Last year Freddie and I didn't play together very much," Crystal said to the students. "Freddie is not like other kids, he's different."
"I have the kind of mind that has autism," Freddie said.
"I bet you really want friends," Mrs. Beaks said to Freddie.
"I do," Freddie said.
The puppet show is part of an effort by volunteer coordinator Fran Goodwin, a Mountain View resident and mother of an 11-year-old autistic boy, to help elementary school-aged children learn to make friends with someone who is autistic.
Goodwin says she isn't trying to promote awareness of autism, exactly; instead she's focused on interaction. Just as people have learned to make friends with the blind and the deaf, children can learn to make friends with autistic children, she said.
"Regular kids can get a lot of enjoyment making friends with other children who are autistic," Goodwin said. But autistic children, though often talented in the arts, music and math, have difficulty with communication. In a social situation autistic children will often stand outside the circle or keep to themselves.
As a result, they do not actively seek out friends, Goodwin said. The puppet shows give gregarious children the tools they need to get autistic kids to open up.
"It takes a kind of confident kid" to make friends with someone who has autism, she said. "But at the same time they have to have a special quality of being able to put themselves in someone else's shoes. If you want to play with a child that's autistic, you kind of have to think about, 'Are they enjoying this as much as I am?' You might find someone who's got amazing gifts."
Building a friendship with someone who has autism takes patience, as the puppet show reveals. When Crystal first asks Freddie if he wants to play a game together, he rebuffs her with an abrupt "No." Not knowing what to do, Crystal turns to Mrs. Beaks, who advises her to use Freddie's name and to speak slowly.
Crystal goes through a series of steps, such as using Freddie's name when she asks him questions. She speaks slowly and watches what Freddie does. But Freddie never looks up from his laptop. When Crystal asks Freddie what he's doing, he makes strange noises like "Echa, echa, echa" -- a kind of self-regulating behavior called a stym.
Ultimately, Freddie reveals to Crystal that he has drawn an animated picture of a popular television cartoon character. Crystal asks Freddie if he can show her how to draw. He agrees, and the two become friends.
The Wings Learning Center, a school for autistic children based in Burlingame, adopted Goodwin's roving show earlier this year as part of a community outreach program. The show was created by Heather McCracken of the Friend 2 Friend Social Learning Society, a Canadian nonprofit.
Everyone has a stym, the volunteers explained to the children after the show. Then the volunteers, all speech therapists and teachers at Wings Learning Center, asked children what they do to calm themselves when they get nervous. The answers included "bite my fingernails," "pick my nose" and "suck my thumb."
Just as everyone has nervous habits, and is good at some things but not as good at other things, so Freddie has a habit of making sounds, and has strengths and weaknesses, the volunteers said.
"Just as we're all different, we have to accept our differences," Goodwin said.
To learn more about Fran Goodwin's puppet show, contact her at (650) 692-9800 or [email protected]