Helping people of all ages learn to fit in

iCan House founder Kim Shufran (center), with daughter, Erica Muller (left), and Susan Kermon.

The story behind iCan House in Winston-Salem is quite simple.

A mother worries about her daughter’s social and learning difficulties, realizes the system isn’t equipped to help her daughter or others with the same problem, so she starts a nonprofit to teach young people the skills they need.

Kim Shufran knows that Asperger syndrome and other disorders on the autism spectrum are not nearly that simple. Nor is iCan House, the place she created to offer social skills and communication instruction to young people (and now adults, too) a simple place.

The one thing Shufran knows six years after creating iCan House? It’s a joyful place.

On any weekday afternoon, the energy inside iCan House flows as children and adults gather to meet others who are different, just like them. Adults and children as young as 8 with social challenges join iCan House “clubs’’ to learn social skills. A diagnosis is not required to participate.

“We are not treating. We are not doing therapy,’’ Shufran says emphatically. “We are teaching social, life and independence skills. We adjust based on what they need, whether it’s a 12-year-old getting ready to go to middle school or somebody in their 20s trying to learn to live independently.’’

Avoiding labels

Shufran was aware early on that her daughter, Erica Muller, faced challenges other children didn’t seem to have.

“I knew she saw the world differently, interacted with her peers differently. She didn’t seek out friendships, didn’t engage with people in the same way other children were doing,’’ Shufran says. “Yet she was very bright, incredibly articulate. It was just within the context of a group or social setting she was askew.’’

Such social and communicative differences are common for people who have Asperger’s, with which Erica eventually was diagnosed. But for Shufran, the problem didn’t end there. As her daughter struggled in school, she realized that no one knew how to address or help the specific areas where Erica had trouble.

“I was frustrated the labels she was given,’’ Shufran says. “ADHD. Learning disability. Language and math disability. Asperger’s. All these labels pointed to what she couldn’t do. And as parents, we don’t want to raise our children with a focus on what they can’t do. We want them to rise and fulfill their capacity. And the more I learned about my daughter from the diagnostic world, the more negative it was.”

Shufran envisioned a place for kids such as her daughter to receive assistance in the social and communicative skills. Her background – 16 years in clinical nursing and 12 years in organizational and development consulting – helped as she spent two years developing her idea and business plan. The iCan House opened in September 2008 in a row house on Fourth Street in Winston-Salem.

The club-based programs began with 12 children; today, a six-person staff serves 125 members a week, including young children, teens and adults. The members of iCan House meet weekly to participate in behavior-based activities, both there and in the community for events or meals.

The key, Shufran says, is in the first line of iCan House’s mission statement: “With a foundation in positive thinking.”

Words of advice

At the annual fundraising luncheon for iCan House in March, speaker John Elder Robison, a bestselling author with Asperger’s who has become an advocate for people on the autism spectrum, challenged people to think differently.

Author John Elder Robison at the annual iCan House lunch.Robison’s ancestry goes back to colonial America, and he has identified those with autism-like behaviors dating at least five generations. In decades and centuries past, people were routinely accepted by society and contributed regardless of their personal attributes, he says.

It is only in modern day, Robison says, with public schooling, that “we created a culture of disability,’’ in which labels designate and relegate people on the autism spectrum.

“We now have a whole room of people talking about how to employ disabled people who didn’t exist in previous generations,’’ he told the 250 in attendance, noting that Asperger’s itself wasn’t even a diagnosis until 1994.

“There’s a great deal of evidence that autistic people have been bringing innovative and wonderful things to the world for as long as man has been here,’’ he says. “But we learn in different ways.’’

Susan Kermon of Winston-Salem grew up not fitting in and not being able to communicate why or how.

A decorative painter who received a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, she says she lived a lie.

“I knew how to present in public. How to get the right response, to get everybody to think everything was good,’’ she says. Inside, though, “my overriding view of myself was shame. And I could think of no way out of it.’’

When she was diagnosed with Asperger’s three years ago at age 45, it led to a year of intense research, but she eventually came to accept and eventually embrace it. Today, she says, she’s an adult member of iCan House involved with educating the community from her own unique point of view.

“I don’t know what the future looks like,’’ she says, “but I know that I have one, and I don’t feel ashamed at all.’’

Reaching goals

People travel from 13 different counties in North Carolina and Virginia, some from over an hour away, to attend iCan House programs. Many different organizations support the nonprofit, including Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, where Shufran worked as a nurse and in organizational development.

Erica Muller and her friend, Michelle Gustman.Shufran hopes that iCan House becomes a model to demonstrate how people with social difficulties such as autism can learn to fit seamlessly into the 21st century world; she envisions expanding into other cities.

If there has been one consistent thing since it opened, it’s the one young person who appears in many iCan House pictures and presentations.

Erica Muller, now 17, says she is grateful to her mother for establishing iCan House and supports any effort to expand it to reach more people. People with autism spectrum problems are different in a way that makes them self-conscious, she says.

“We just stayed in our own little worlds. We were judged for the things we liked and we did,’’ she says. “The iCan House helped me open up a lot. When I was so closed and quiet, I wouldn’t talk to many people. As my mom would say, I’ve blossomed. I talk to everybody. And it’s the same with so many of the other kids.’’



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