MOUNT LAUREL — A group that got together Sunday afternoon proved that making candy treats is not only a fun pastime with sweet rewards, but an ideal activity for those who thrive in calm, focused environments.
The kids at Aunt Selma’s Chocolate & Candy Co. were celebrating Scott Clarkson’s 12th birthday. Chocolate, vanilla icing, licorice, graham crackers, gum drops, popcorn, jellybeans and Twinkies were blended together in an array of scrumptious confections.
While it wasn’t apparent from the joyous mixing, sprinkling and dipping, parties and general social interactions are challenging for Scott. He has an autism spectrum disorder known as Asperger’s syndrome and often blurts out whatever he’s thinking, according to his mother, Sharon Clarkson of Eastampton. The party goers were his classmates from Y.A.L.E. School, a special needs learning center in Cherry Hill.
Wearing a white apron that read “Jr. Candy Maker,” the birthday boy sampled some marshmallows, mused that his chocolate popcorn “pizza” could use some caramel, and broke out into an impromptu hula dance while creating an edible beach scene out of candy dolphins and rice cakes.
“He hasn’t taken the smile off his face the whole time,” Sharon Clarkson said, beaming.
Also happy were seven of Scott’s friends, who were stationed around the work table carefully crafting masterpieces under the direction of two employees and the head chocolatier, shop owner Pamela Orris. Rick Orris, her husband, trooped back and forth between the back pantry and the showroom, exchanging used bowls and pans for new supplies.
The other attendees were parents who have learned the hard way that chaotic environments, such as kid-themed restaurants or amusement parks, aren’t the best places for their kids to socialize.
But the way Orris sees it, kids are kids. And kids want to have fun.
“We think it’s great to get the word out there that there’s a place for special needs kids to have a party,” said Pamela Orris, the head chocolatier of 11 employees. “And they get to make candy. What’s bad with that?”
“We have just as good a time as they do,” said Orris, who practically danced around the work table as she passed out new bowls of sweet ingredients and complimented everyone’s work.
It was the fourth special needs party hosted by Orris, who purchased the store three years ago after careers in fabric sales and real estate.
The Mansfield resident said that Aunt Selma’s represents the marriage of her painting and sculpting background and her passion for food, which originated during her upbringing in an Italian household. Orris’ upcoming plans include auditioning for the “Food Network Challenge,” a reality show cook-off, and serving as a sponsor for the American Girl Fashion Show, a Special Olympics New Jersey fundraiser set for Oct. 21 at the Forsgate Country Club in Monroe, Middlesex County.
Locally, the Larchmont Boulevard shop is the go-to place for corporate gifts and themed parties for all types of kids.
Scott’s father Tom Clarkson, who chronicled the whole event with a camera, looked around longingly at the stacks of boxed chocolates, pinwheel lollypop trees and candy-filled gift baskets.
“This isn’t the best place to be if you’re on a diet,” he said.