From Our Team
Posted on May 11, 2023 by Sandra Day
Parents and caregivers of children with autism are their lifelong teachers; for this reason, having an evidence-based curriculum like the Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills (PEERS) that includes parents as coaches is invaluable.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects social interaction, communication, and behavior. Individuals with ASD often struggle with making and maintaining friendships, leading to isolation and loneliness. The U.S. Surgeon General says that lack of social connection poses a significant health risk, and that loneliness and social isolation can increase the risk of premature death by 26% and 29%, respectively (HHS.gov, 2023). In 2019, the NMSU Papen-Aprendamos Autism Diagnostic Center (ADC) was established to meet southern New Mexico’s demand for autism services and autism evaluations at no cost to families. The Paso del Norte Health Foundation provided funding to support ADC in implementing a PEERS pilot for at least 50 participants 18 months to 17 years of age who live in Doña Ana, Luna, and Otero counties.
The PEERS program is an evidence-based intervention designed to teach social skills to adolescents and young adults with ASD. Dr. Elizabeth Laugeson developed PEERS at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). It has been shown to improve social skills, increase social participation, and reduce social anxiety in individuals with ASD. The program teaches evidence-based social skills such as conversation, humor, and handling disagreements. The program has been shown to improve the mental health of teens with autism by helping them make friendships and critical social connections.
This evidence-based community health outreach program consists of 14 weekly sessions that are 90 minutes each. The program is divided into two parts: instructive lessons and social homework. Instructive lessons cover understanding social cues, making friends, and planning get-togethers. Social homework involves role-playing with their parent and using their skills to build friendships in their natural social settings like school, clubs, sports, or work. PEERS also includes parent training sessions to help parents support their child’s social development outside the program. Parents learn strategies for coaching their teens through social situations, providing feedback, and encouraging social opportunities.
“The parents participating as social coaches is a real strength of the PEERS program,” said Kali Hall, the director of the PEERS program at NMSU. “Social coaches take skills taught in the group and support the teens as they apply them to the real world.” Thanks to a grant by Paso del Norte Health Foundation, participating teens with ASD who live in Doña Ana, Luna, and Otero counties will be able to overcome isolation, loneliness, and associated mental health challenges.
Youths diagnosed with ASD frequently have difficulty expressing emotions, interpreting non-verbal communication, or understanding social cues. This often stigmatizes/isolates youths with ASD, leading to higher rates of anxiety disorder and depression diagnosis (National Alliance on Mental Illness, 2022). These challenges in understanding social interactions make it difficult for teens with ASD to make friends. However, “having one or two best friends correlates positively with self-esteem, and negatively with anxious and depressive symptoms” (Buhrmester, 1990) – meaning teens with autism who have friends have improved mental health.
“[My Teen’s] confidence improved. She also seems to be much more open-minded to new social encounters,” said a participating parent.
With the continued growth and development of PEERS, we can look forward to a future where individuals with ASD have the tools and support they need to thrive socially and achieve their full potential.
|To learn more about the ADC, please visit [Autism Diagnostic Center||New Mexico State University - All About Discovery! (nmsu.edu)](https://cd.nmsu.edu/autism/autism-diagnostic-center.html) or find them on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ADC.NMSU.|
PDNHF Priority Area: Disease Prevention & Management
Back to Articles