By the start of the 21st century, educators had a great deal of insight into the thinking, behavior, and educational needs of young people on the autism spectrum. Rather than accept limitations, these forward-thinking practitioners wanted to build skills and tap talents.
But where were these children, often isolated from peers in the neighborhood and in school, supposed to go for fun?
This question troubled Dr. Susan DeLuke, a Saint Rose associate professor of special education, who began working with individuals with autism spectrum disorders in the late 1970s. In 2004, she came up with an idea: Gather children from preschool through high school who shared a diagnosis but a vast range of abilities and interests. Bring them together one Friday night a month in a College academic building to enjoy crafts, military history, board games, video games, rock music, theater, science experiments, in short, anything young people like to do. Let them choose. Staff the mini-classes with Saint Rose students, who would, in turn, advance their understanding of how to support and educate those with a host of challenges and talents.
The program, now replicated in other states, was named Friday Knights. In addition to providing fun for children, and respite for families, it had a less visible goal: allow the participants to apply what they learned in therapeutic groups DeLuke and others led.
“They could do the skills when there was a lot of structure. But once we left kids on their own it fell apart,” DeLuke explains. “The research talks about the difference between knowledge and performance.”
DeLuke, who added a parent support group, Friday Knights Fishes (swimming) and Summer Days (summer camp), was recognized for her pioneering work with the 2015 Saint Rose Community Service Award. Friday Knights was featured on the “Today Show” in 2010. Some of the original Friday Knights participants have moved on to college, jobs, and adult community programs, or may show up in Albertus Hall one Friday night a month to help out.