A new group in Sudbury for youth with Asperger Syndrome is teaching teens how to interact with their peers — and teaching parents how to help that process along.

Social interaction is just one of the challenges people with the condition face. It’s something Erin Chomiak works hard at encouraging with her 14-year-old son Stephen, who was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome two years ago.

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Lori Pagnutti and Natalie Lippert from Child and Community Resources in Sudbury, helped lead a program for Aspergers teens and their parents. The program, which is new for the city, teaches social skills critical to making and keeping friends. (Hilary Duff/CBC)

While Stephen loves discussing economics and politics, making small talk is more challenging, she said.

"The most minute aspects of social skills are beyond his comprehension," Chomiak said.

"In order to understand any kind of emotional or social thing he usually has to quantify it and the PEERS program was a really great opportunity because it was set up step-by-step, and that's his learning style."

The PEERS program, an acronym for Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills, is run through Child and Community Resources in Sudbury. It got its start in 2006 at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

Friendships help kids adjust

Since 2006, the UCLA PEERS clinic has assisted high-functioning teens with Autism Spectrum Disorders by teaching them strategies they need to fit in better with their peers. And while previous research demonstrated the program was effective, it wasn't known whether the new skills "stuck" with these teens after they completed the PEERS classes.

In the June 2012 edition of the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders it was reported that, in a long-term follow-up study, they found the skills taught and learned stayed with the kids — and in some cases even improved.

Program based on friendship

PEERS is a 14-week evidence-based social skills intervention for motivated teens in middle school or high school who are interested in learning ways to help them make and keep friends. Having one or two close friends is predictive of later adjustment and:

  • Can buffer the impact of stressful life events
  • Correlates positively with self-esteem
  • Increases independence
  • Correlates negatively with depression and anxiety

Source: UCLA

Lori Pagnutti worked with the youth during the 14-week program, which was held at the Child and Community Resources offices on Falconbridge Road.

She said the program teaches the teens a new skill each week, like communication.

"We looked at how to join a conversation, entering a conversation, exiting a conversation," Pagnutti said.

"We would take activities where we, as facilitators, would model that and have them practise the steps as well."

Pagnutti said the organization plans to run another set of PEERS sessions later this year.

As for Chomiak, she said the program didn't just help Stephen — it also helped her.

"When I got to know the other parents, I found that, absolutely, [there was] an incredible source of support," she said.

Encouraging parents is key as parents sometimes hold back on pushing their Aspergers’ teens out of their comfort zone.

Chomiak said "pushing" Stephen can involve something as simple as encouraging him to telephone a friend or interact with his siblings.

She said she appreciated what she was able to learn through the PEERS program.

"Having the involvement of at least one of the parents is absolutely crucial," Chomiak said.

"We need to be able to reinforce what they learned and really encourage that and know that it's okay to push them to do those kinds of things."