On a recent Thursday morning, Tracy Higgins directed the attention of a group of seven women with developmental disabilities to a series of concentric circles on a large poster on the wall.
“This is the orange wave circle,” she told them. “People in orange are not strangers, but they are pretty far away from you. We wave to people in the orange circle. We don’t give out personal information or have long conversations with people in orange.”
The group, at the Wellness, Arts, and Enrichment Center in West Orange — a Jewish Service for the Developmentally Disabled of MetroWest alternative learning center — is nearly finished with a seven-session curriculum designed to help them better manage relationships, with strangers and friends, relatives and romantic partners. JSDD is a beneficiary agency of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
A similar group meets Thursday afternoons at the Jewish Vocational Service of MetroWest, another federation agency. Both programs have been made possible through an $8,000 grant from the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New Jersey.
“Meaningful friendships are a challenge for people who have spent so many years with teachers and doctors,” said WAE Center director Marilynn Schneider. “Now they get to value their own words and reflect on their behavior, and on what’s important — not only with girlfriends but also having boyfriends.”
The WAE Center took on the project in May. It had originated at the Special Needs Services department at JCC MetroWest. Schneider invited other agencies to join, and JVS, which had a similar kind of project in the works, jumped on the opportunity.
Schneider shifted the format from eight one-hour sessions to seven two-hour sessions, and added the art component, bringing in both Higgins, a licensed professional counselor, and art therapist Lauren Rice.
‘Art is necessary’
Schneider knows it’s working, not only because clients have thanked her for bringing in the program, but because she sees clients involved in an internal struggle with the material being presented, a stage she calls the “push-pull” that eventually propels them forward.
The curriculum is divided into two parts: verbal teaching with Higgins and creative expression with Rice. In exercises using the concentric circles, the participants learn different rules for interaction, particularly as they relate to touching. Rice has worked with participants to create a sort of modified scrapbook — made by altering existing books — to help tell their own stories, especially as they relate to their own relationships.
Higgins, whose expertise is in behavior counseling for people with developmental disabilities, specializes in trauma, abuse, and relationships. She also works at the Morris County Sexual Abuse Center.
“People with behavioral challenges often have a history of sexual trauma,” she said. “The majority of this population is so vulnerable to sexual abuse and assault; it’s a chronic problem.”
Proactive education, Higgins said, helps “reduce the risk for further abuse.” The program she put together loosely combines the established “circles” curriculum with ESCAPE, a program designed by Columbia University that teaches what is healthy and unhealthy in relationships. She added a “self-advocacy” piece of her own.
While she has used this format in many venues, the WAE Center program marks the first time she has taught it in conjunction with an art therapy component.
“It’s amazing,” Higgins said. “In this high-risk population, we often have disclosures within the group of abuse. I use my clinical expertise to help people process that. But in the population, people sometimes have difficulty verbally expressing themselves,” she said. “Now I see people expressing themselves and processing the material in ways I could never have seen without Lauren.”
In the JVS group, she said, one woman expressed “conflicted feelings about a relationship in her book. A week later, Lauren confronted her about the relationship. Without the book, she couldn’t have been able to assess the relationship. It’s a different avenue of communication.
“Now,” Higgins added, “I think the art component is necessary.”
At JVS, the women’s disabilities are less pronounced, and the class delves a bit deeper into the subject matter. But the material is easily adapted to any group, according to Higgins, based on members’ ability.
Hetal Patel, program coordinator at the JVS Career Center, also termed the program “amazing.”
“In the beginning, the clients were very reserved and not open to discussion,” she said. “As the weeks went on, they are much more social and willing to share their experiences.”
Patel said one participant shared an experience with an ex-boyfriend who was violent. “She was able to share her experiences and describe how it affected her,” said Patel. “Now, they are all learning how to build healthy relationships.”
On this particular Thursday, after finishing the portion of the lesson on the orange “wave” circle, Higgins helped the women make a chart of healthy versus unhealthy relationships. “Letting you make your own decisions — is that healthy or unhealthy?” asked Higgins. “How about someone touching you without permission? Healthy or unhealthy?”
Schneider said of the project, “This is the beginning, a place to start from. I really want to build on it, something bigger and even more educational.”