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Program gives teens with autism opportunity to build social skills

Rachelle Vartanian opens Living & Learning in Northville

NORTHVILLE, Mich. – Rachelle Vartanian was a special education teacher for 20 years, but her knowledge of children with special needs was tested when a diagnosis hit her family.

"My own son was diagnosed with autism, and I mean, it rocked my world," Vartanian said.

Vartanian returned to school and got her master's in autism. It was through her schooling that she realized one key thing.

"He needs social skills in order to be successful," Vartanian said.

"Now often one of the most heartbreaking parts is the ostracization of kids who have autism," Mitch Albom said.

"There's lots of programs for young kids, but it is this forgotten population," Vartanian said. "They start growing up, and then there's nothing out there for older kids."

So Vartanian rented a space in a local library every Sunday and began offering social skills groups for her youngest son and his peers.

"We teach them social skills," Vartanian said. "For you and I, we don't think about we're having a conversation right now."

"Right, looking (one another) in the eye," Albom said.

"These kids, I am pausing, I am listening to you. They don't know how to do it," Vartanian said.

As the demand grew for her Sunday program, Vartanian took a leap of faith and opened Living & Learning in Northville. Her Friday and Saturday night "Hang Outs" give teens the opportunity to create art projects, play music and just hang out, developing much-needed skills to build friendships.

It's something that Vartanian's older son, Ethan, takes to heart.

"It really has opened my eyes, because I try to be a lot less judgmental and just being able to help kids," he said. "It's almost, not even, doesn't feel like work to me. It is just hanging out with kids that are teens that don't quite grasp it like we do."

"I mean, I think they feel safe there," Vartanian said.

Using her life experience to help teens thrive, Vartanian is creating lasting friendships in the heart of Detroit.