This is, in essence, the main job of a trained peer mentor. Someone who is in the same age group as the individuals with autism, who is well versed in the ins-and-outs of modern social rules and is trained by a social coach. This training allows peers to be able to chime in during sessions with advice on social rules in a constructive manner, as well as having a large basis on what autism is and how to approach situations. Lessons can be made more relevant to the shifting world of online communication, as well as changing norms. Dating culture, even completely in person, sure has changed over the past thirty years or so!
So, who can be a peer? Does it have to be someone specially selected and trained, or a friend or family member of someone with autism? Well, that is the cool part of this. Anyone can act as the role of a peer mentor in social situations as long as they are trained. This training is more than knowing the basics of what autism is according to the DSM-5-- it is necessary to have worked with someone who has expertise in the field of social coaching and has experience working with individuals with autism on how to properly redirect or point out social blunders constructively. Simply saying “wow that was rude,” is not really teaching anything. Instead, phrasing it as “reference how other people reacted to what you said. They might have gone silent because it was taken as rude. Here is another way you could say it…” is a far more productive way to put it. Further, knowing when to stop talking and take a minute to let the individual think and process, or when to switch to visual cues instead of verbal, can assist learning in a far more calm, helpful way.
What has been found by our social coaches over several years of using peer mentors in groups and with individuals is that the impact of these peers is often far more than just making sure the advice and tips are still applicable in 2020. The relationship is more like what you get from a particularly helpful older sibling or the person on the team or club that shows you the ropes. They’re a friend, one that can be counted on for social help and who understands their social challenges due to autism. An outing or text conversation between the peer and the individual not only helps build a real relationship between two people, but also allows for learning and practice in a very safe environment. From everything that we have found throughout the past several years, there is something vital about the role of a trained peer mentor.
Stay tuned for the next post, all about the personal experience of a peer mentor!
Written by: Katy Evans