Their interaction, courtesy of the Friendship Club, an outreach of the Jewish Family and Children's Service of Southern New Jersey, is a chance to learn skills intuitive to most people, skills their condition makes difficult to grasp.
Those with Asperger syndrome generally come across as brilliant, eccentric, socially fumbling, and physically awkward. Most have normal or above-normal IQs, but lack some basic social skills.
For them, tone of voice, eye contact, and personal space in conversations are not intuitive, while memorizing facts and grasping difficult science concepts usually are. They are often the children picked last in playground games, who want to socialize but don't know how to.
Enter the Friendship Club.
Watching their boys follow their group leaders into a room, a group of mothers sat in plastic chairs at the Jewish Family and Children's Service headquarters in Cherry Hill and marveled at the scene unfolding before them.
Pat Cohen said she is grateful for a group where her son, a whirling top of energy, fits in. Joseph's Asperger syndrome was only recently diagnosed.
"Kids in our apartment complex don't want to play with him," said Cohen, who lives in Laurel Springs. "He's different, and they don't know how to handle that. So anything I can find for him is great."
Mary Giblin of Cherry Hill said the weekly Friendship Club is good for her son John, 11.
"Every week, he's becoming more interested in being here, in following the rules," she said. "They're learning some good skills, and it's a predictable situation, which they always do best in."
Asperger syndrome, which predominantly affects boys, has been recognized as a medical condition only in the last decade. Estimates of the neurobiological disorder's prevalence range from two cases per 1,000 to two per 10,000, but it is clear that it is being diagnosed in more and more children and adults.
Early intervention is enormously helpful, and the Friendship Club mothers said finding resources for their boys - who, because of the slow recognition of the condition, had it diagnosed much later than is desirable - was a challenge.
Social interaction is vital not just for Asperger children but also for their parents, said Deirdre Wright, president of the Ardmore-based ASCEND (Asperger Syndrome Children Empowered Now with Dignity) Group Inc., which coordinates workshops, support groups and education.
"You feel like your family is an island," Wright said. "You're dealing with issues other families mostly don't know anything about. It's scary."
That is how the Friendship Club got started - after parents began clamoring for activities, groups, resources. A social-skills group seemed the best fit, and the first incarnation of group was held in the spring.
"We teach social skills in a formal, didactic way," said Abrams, an occupational therapist. "And the kids feel safe. They're free of teasing, of other kids making fun of them."
Along with Hillary Domers, a social worker, and Tony Perez, a La Salle University student, Abrams steers the five boys through role-playing, games and worksheets. They learn skills such as how to deal with teasing and how to take no for an answer.
The lesson last week was "It's OK to make mistakes."
The long, narrow room where four of the Friendship Club boys had gathered gave off a low hum of chatter.
It was Talk Time, and Ryan had just finished practicing eye contact with Joseph.
Tyler Juliff, 11, swung open the door and joined the circle.
"I'm sorry I was late," he offered.
"That's kind of you to say," Abrams said. "Make room for Tyler, everyone. Take out your practice sheet for the week."
They zipped through a review of the first few weeks' lessons. Abrams asked the boys to think back to what they had learned their first week.
Tyler raised his hand and strode to a wall, where large sheets of paper listed the group's goals.
"Dealing with teasing," he said, pointing to a piece of paper, then walking back to his seat.
On his way back, Joseph grinned at him.
"Hey, Tyler, nice job," he said, giving him a thumbs-up.
Abrams, Domers and Perez looked over approvingly.
Next, it was back to a rectangular table to add to their paper shields, worksheets meant to help use their lessons as defense against a world that often does not understand their behavior.
The guys talked swimming and vacation eagerly.
But things did not always go smoothly. Some of the group seemed perpetually withdrawn, and others were bent on chatting about video games when it was time to role-play.
When he was not picked to be the person who got to knock down a sculpture made of blocks, for instance, Joseph grew frustrated.
"No one cares about me!" he shouted.
"Everyone cares about you," Domers said calmly. "Remember? Sometimes you have to accept no for an answer."
But mostly, there were triumphs for the lively, spirited boys, who in some ways seemed younger than they are.
Over the oranges, pretzels, crackers and juice pouches of snack time, the boys chilled out. Ryan chatted with Perez, who had just returned from Disney World.
"I was there Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday, and I came back today," Perez said of his trip.
"So Aug. 1 to Aug. 5," Ryan said quickly, by now making eye contact without thinking.
Then it was on to a few rounds of Hangman, which taught them it is OK to guess a wrong letter, and then the fourth of the Friendship Club's eight sessions was over.
Tyler tucked his shield under his arm, a new "It's OK to make mistakes" piece of construction paper carefully taped on.
Domers smiled at his retreating back.
"Hopefully," she said, "we're going to give them something to take out to their schools and playgrounds."
Contact staff writer Kristen Graham at 856-779-3927 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Asperger Syndrome Resources
Greater Philadelphia Chapter of the Autism Society of America is an information, education and advocacy organization serving Philadelphia and its Pennsylvania suburbs. Visit www.asaphilly.org or call 610-358-5256.
Asperger Syndrome Children Empowered Now with Dignity (ASCEND) is an information alliance serving Philadelphia and its Pennsylvania suburbs. Visit www.ascendgroup.org or call 610-449-6776.
Asperger Syndrome Education Network (ASPEN N.J.) is an education, support and advocacy network serving New Jersey. Visit www.aspennj.org.
Jewish Family and Children's Service of Southern New Jersey sponsors the Friendship Club for children of all faiths. Visit www.jfedsnj.org or call 856-424-1333.
Sharing and Caring of Bucks County is a countywide support network that includes resources such as a lending library and sibling support group. E-mail email@example.com or call 215-321-3202.
Asperger Syndrome Coalition of the U.S. provides education and links to local resources. Visit www.asperger.org.
Online Asperger Syndrome Information and Support (OASIS) is an online resource for families affected by Asperger Syndrome. Visit www.aspergersyndrome.org.