For ten days, from December 21, 2015 through January 1, 2016, I was part of a trip to Israel, specifically for young adults with autism. Though all of us on the trip were adults on the spectrum, we did not define ourselves or our trip in terms of autism.
By Cheryl Checkers
I first heard about PEERS® (The Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills ) several years ago, when someone sent me an issue of People magazine that included a story titled “Can Joey Make A Friend?” This article takes the reader on the journey of Joey, a 17-year-old teen with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), who finds it almost impossible to fit in. He cannot do many of the things that come easily to most teens at his high school. His parents are worried about his many struggles; they want to do something to help him. It is devastating for them, as it is for most parents, to know Joey feels so alone. Joey’s parents sign him up for a “cutting-edge” program at UCLA called PEERS. I was fascinated as I read the article because, to me, Joey represented so many of the clients I work with. I devoured the article to find out what was going to unfold. My first thought upon finishing the article was “How do I get this intervention to Florida?” It was like finding a rare treasure you cannot wait to share!
I was instantly hooked on this unique social skills intervention, not only because it included many facets necessary to be successful socially, but it had a component I hadn’t seen before – “Parent as Social Coach”. After further research, I brought it to the attention of the agency I was working for. Luckily, they also recognized the need to bring this crucial intervention to Florida- and were on board immediately. The next thing I knew, I was off to UCLA to become a Certified PEERS Therapist.
The PEERS intervention was developed at UCLA by Drs. Elizabeth Laugeson and Fred Frankel. This heavily researched, manualized, evidence-based intervention is a 14 – 16-week life changer. A child, teen, or young adult group meets each week to learn friendship and social skills that are broken down into small concrete steps, while their parent is in a separate group learning how to be their social coach. Both groups receive homework assignments that require the individual to practice the newly learned skill, and the social coach to help them generalize the skills in different environments. The weekly sessions slowly build from topics such as how to have a “two-way conversation”, to teaching the individual how to meet a new friend who shares a common interest, and culminates in the planning of an activity with their new friend.
I had the honor of teaching PEERS at Florida Atlantic University for the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD). I had the opportunity to work with teens and young adults with a great desire to meet friends, yet few of the necessary skills to form friendships. I had some doubts as I embarked on teaching my first class. I wanted to fulfill each person’s wish to meet a friend. It seemed like such a small request. However, I knew that without the right skills, it made it almost impossible. “What if I fail?”, I thought.
I can honestly say the thought did not reside in my head for long because I witnessed the PEERS magic almost immediately. I saw the teens and young adults who had been teased and felt they didn’t fit in, begin to test their newly learned skills. They were taught how to handle teasing and bullying, how to choose appropriate friends along with many other skills, before generalizing them outside the group. I helped the parents understand why these skills did not come naturally to their children and had to be taught. I watched as the parents became excellent social coaches for their child, as they were armed with the tools and understanding they needed.
The real test came towards the end of the program when everyone was expected to plan a “get-together” with that friend. My initial fear crept back into my mind – “Please let this work!” Words are not adequate to describe the thrill of watching a child, teen or young adult succeed in an area where they had continued to fail. Every person in the first class I taught made a friend – a real friend. They each enjoyed a successful “get-together” with their new friend. PEERS gave them the tools to succeed in the social realm, and perhaps more importantly, the gift of how to make a friend. The results vary in every group, but I can say without a doubt in my mind, I have witnessed the magic of PEERS. As for Joey, at the end of the article, he was considering whether to invite the girl he met at school to prom.
To read People magazine’s article “Can Joey Make A Friend”: https://www.semel.ucla.edu/sites/all/files/PEERS%20in%20People.pdf
To learn more about UCLA PEERS®: https://www.semel.ucla.edu/peers
Cheryl Checkers has a Master of Science Degree in Psychology, with a concentration in Mental Health Counseling from Nova Southeastern University. She received a post graduate certification from UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior and is a UCLA Certified PEERS therapist. Cheryl has taught the Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills (PEERS) intervention at Florida Atlantic University (FAU) and in a private psychology practice. She has worked as Clinical Director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) where she created a life skills program for adolescents and young adults with a behavioral health struggle. She also worked as a Clinical Support Specialist, Contractor and Coordinator for FAU’s Center for Autism and Related Disorders (CARD) and was recipient of the 2015 Autism Society of America (Palm Beach/Martin County Chapter) Outstanding Autism Advocate/Volunteer award. Cheryl specializes in working with individuals who have an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in the areas of intensive resource and transition planning, life skills training, relationship and friendship skill building, parent and family education and support, and professional consultation.