NORTHFIELD — In one part of the meeting room, a couple sat talking to friends, while several young men played a card game nearby. Many others enjoyed pizza, soda and conversation.
Everyone in the group was somewhere on the autism spectrum.
“It’s very different from the first night we did it,” said FACES 4 Autism board member David Hagan, who supervises the 3-year-old support and social group at the Atlantic Cape Family Support Organization. “They kept their jackets on and heads down. They didn’t even say hello.”
The meetings are guided by graduate students from The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey and funded by FACES, a nonprofit organization that provides education and support to people with autism and their families.
Many of the mostly male attendees are on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. They are intelligent but have difficulties interacting socially. They often also have intense interests in limited subjects and are used to spending time alone pursuing those interests.
“It took a lot to get him to come here,” Kathie Penate, of Absecon, said of her son Michael, 20. He had never had friends or a social group before, she explained. He is on the high-functioning part of the spectrum but also has anxiety issues.
Michael Penate had attended Holy Spirit High School, where he was in a self-contained classroom with a one-on-one aide. Now, he attends a YALE School program in conjunction with Camden County College that gives him support while he takes one college course at a time.
On a recent Thursday night, Michael Penate led a group of five young men playing an off-color game called Cards Against Humanity. He and his friends joked and laughed.
“It’s like Apples to Apples meets ‘South Park,’” said Dylan Slocum, 19, of Mays Landing.
Slocum wore a T-shirt featuring Olaf the snowman from the movie “Frozen,” which he said he watches over and over. His favorite character is Elsa, the older sister who becomes queen. He explained why so many people focus on her rather than her younger sister, Anna, who is in many ways the story’s heroine.
“People are attracted to how Elsa overcomes her fears,” he said. “She breaks out of her isolation. Anna is the optimist, but Elsa’s situation is a lot more complex.”
The group members interact outside the group, too.
“Sometimes we plan to see a movie or go to a restaurant, or a little bit of both,” said Scott Menendez, 26, of Galloway Township. On Thursday nights, many go bowling together at King Pin Lanes in Egg Harbor Township.
Sean Caoty, 30, of Mays Landing, uses a wheelchair because of some physical issues. He is a big sports fan with a wry sense of humor.
“My nieces are coming down this weekend. They are 2 and 2 months,” he said. “Last year when my niece came for a visit, she spread the bubonic plague. By the time the Christmas tree came down, I was saying, ‘I’m glad that’s over,’” he said with a joking look.
He used to drag his dad to high school football games every Friday night, he said, but now he has a data entry job so his time for sports is more limited.
“I like hanging out with everybody,” said Bailey Garrell, 19, of Port Republic, who has been coming to the group for about a year. She sat with her friend John Thompson, 26, of Absecon.
Garrell takes a little more time than most people to process what someone says to her in a conversation, but as long as others are patient, she warms up and relaxes.
She and Thompson, who is also on the spectrum, met online, she said. She told Thompson about the FACES social group.
Garrell, like some other group members, is in a job training program. All described how the group has changed their lives.
Garrell and Thompson had just gotten back from a trip to New York City with one of their parents, where they had a day and night on the town.
“I had a party at my house,” said Anthony Hoffman, 24, of the Ocean View section of Dennis Township. “It was a nice turnout.”
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