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New Program in Richmond Helps Teens With Autism Learn Social Skills

Each year, about 50,000 young people with autism graduate from high school and that number is growing. While services and specialized education help students progress in grades K-12, many lack the social skills necessary for the next stages of life. A pilot program in Richmond is stepping in to provide these supports. WCVE’s Catherine Komp has more for Learning Curve.

Learn More: Find out about Barbara Simeroth and the Richmond-based Spectrum-Wise and the PEERs program developed at UCLA. Statistics in this story came from Drexel University’s National Autism Indicators Report: Transition Into Young Adulthood.

Transcript: 

It’s a Friday evening and four teens pull chairs up to a table. Instructor Barbara Simeroth teaches this weekly class to help young people with autism improve their social skills. She begins by asking about homework.

Barbara Simeroth: Anybody have a get together?
Teen: Last week I met up with a couple of friends and we saw the new Thor movie and went to dinner afterwards.
Simeroth: Nice did you arrange that?

Simeroth, founder of the company Spectrum Wise, is one of a handful of people in Virginia certified to teach this class, called PEERs, The Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills. Developed at UCLA, the evidence-based, 16 week program covers topics like how to choose friends; how to communicate via texting or instant messaging, how to enter and exit a conversation. Simeroth says for neurotypicals - people who don’t have autism or other developmental differences - this is often second nature.

Simeroth: When we're finished with a conversation, on the phone or in person, we don't just walk away or hang up the phone. We give what in PEERs is called a cover story. So my dinner's ready, my class is starting, good talking to you, see you later, bye. We don't just abruptly end the conversation and walk away. But we probably haven't broken it down to think about that and say “Oh, I just gave a cover story.” So when we label it and we make it into steps that can be understood, then students on the spectrum can memorize these steps or there's even a phone app that they can look at to remember the steps. Because it is not innate and it doesn't come through modeling, they have to be actually taught.

Simeroth had a long career teaching. And she started noticing a disturbing trend. Her former students on the spectrum were getting into college - academically they shined. But once on campus, they struggled.

Simeroth: I know of students who go to class and their dorm room and class and their dorm room. Their parents come every weekend to help them with laundry, give them food and they graduate but they don't get into the workforce because they haven't learned the skills to interview and keep the job. So yeah, we're not supporting them in the way that I’d like to see. Research on postsecondary education for people with autism is limited, But one study found just 36% of young people with the diagnosis went on to college. Of that number, 70% attended a two-year college, and 32% went to a four-year college. Without the supports that an autism program can provide, many drop out.

Simeroth: Students on the spectrum often have trouble with social skills. And you know on a college campus, you have the potential of 20000 new friends. So that can be overwhelming. Executive functioning: planning, knowing when papers are due, not waiting until the last moment, communication, self-advocacy, sometimes self-care, independent living skills. All of these things are challenges for students with autism.

At the PEERs class, Simeroth is taking the group through a lesson about conflict resolution.

Simeroth: So arguments and disagreements with friends are common and occasional occasional disagreements that are too explosive shouldn't have to end your friendships.

She writes the first step on a whiteboard -

Simeroth: Keep your cool. What do we mean by that?
Teen: Try to be level headed...

The next step:  listening to the other person.

Simeroth: Why is it important to listen to the other person’s side in an argument?
Teen: To see their point of view of things. It’s good to see everyone’s point of view on things because it brings diversity and it everyone shared the same point of view, it wouldn’t be an interesting place. It’s good to have diversity.

After the steps are outlined, two young adults role play a scenario. Then the students give it a try themselves.

(Role playing)

Parents also attend the sessions, working in a separate room with a counselor to develop ways they can be a social skills “coach” for their teens. One mom - who requested we don’t use her name - says she wants her 17-year-old son to be able to interact more easily with people.

Mom: When he writes he can express himself really well but when someone meets him you don't see that side of him at all.

She says he’s picking up the socials concepts.

Mom: But as he has he admitted himself he's going to need some more practice with it. You know it's kind of planting the seed with him but then we have to remind him. It kind of gives him a frame of reference to start with...

She says her son has recently been commenting on value of the PEERs classes.

Mom: Which is new because we've been trying to teach him social skills for years and it was just like a big joke and he learned what to say just to make us go away. And now he's really seeing how it's starting to impact him, that his social skills are not the best. So I think if a child wasn't really interested in learning this stuff it probably wouldn't benefit. They have to be open to the idea or they are not going to really get anything from it.

And her son knows he’ll need these skills in college, where he wants to study statistics, data mining or engineering.

Mom: Well I'm excited for him and I want it to be a good experience and I don't want him to be totally overwhelmed but I just want to see him being happy not stressing himself enjoying college as well as the academics because for him the academics come really easily but everything else is hard.

They don’t have a school picked out yet, but their choices will be limited. There’s only a couple dozen colleges in the U.S. with dedicated autism support programs. On an upcoming edition of Learning Curve, we’ll speak to a college student with autism in one of these programs, and visit his school, George Mason University.

If someone in your family has autism and you’re starting to talk about higher education and have questions, we’ll try to find the answers. Email us at learningcurve@ideastations.org.

For Learning Curve, I’m Catherine Komp, WCVE News.