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August 2011



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5:30 AM, Aug. 17, 2011


WEST NYACK — Ever since his bar mitzvah, Jacob Machlis has wanted to be a stand-up comedian. Robin Williams is a professional idol, as are the fast, frantic ad-libbers on “Whose Line Is it Anyway?”


In conversation, Machlis, 17, of Tappan likes to tell jokes to warm up the room. His act is clean. His monologues touch on topics such as George Washington’s wooden teeth.


Machlis, who is entering his senior year at Tappan Zee High School, also has Asperger syndrome. This might be considered a disability for some, but the aspiring comic regards it as an asset in the unscripted world of improv comedy.


“If you have Asperger’s, you tend to talk without thinking,” he said, pausing for a beat as he worked up to a punchline: “In improv, you always talk without thinking.”


Machlis was one of 14 Rockland County teens who graduated Tuesday from the Total Teen Experience, a new summer program that teaches social skills to high-functioning teens with Asperger syndrome.


The six-week pilot program was developed this year by Michele Koenig, director of clinical programs at Jewish Family Service, after a parent expressed a need for special resources to help the teens. Koenig also runs a social-skills group program for people with Asperger’s with the nonprofit family service agency.


Asperger syndrome is a mild form of autism that affects how a child responds to social cues. Children with Asperger’s are awkward around others or will show a single-minded obsession on a particular subject, such as baseball statistics or train schedules.


But children with Asperger’s also often function successfully in scientific or technological careers, where the intense concentration and well-regulated routines fit their personalities.


“These kids are extremely intelligent,” said Koenig, who noted that many teens with Asperger syndrome go on to graduate from college. “It’s just the social stuff that gets in the way.”


The teens met for six hours a day, five days a week at the Jewish Community Center in West Nyack. During morning sessions, they worked in the JCC’s administrative offices, as well as the fitness center and cafe. Two of the teens interned at People to People, a food pantry in Nanuet.


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