My name is Katy, and I have been working as a peer since I was 14, which seems like yesterday, but is now six years ago! My mom is one of the social coaches for Totally Social ASD and works with students with autism in the public school system, so I had a lot of background knowledge. It took a few months of training and working in individual sessions before I felt more confident in my role and could start to chime in more effectively and eventually, even have outings and tutoring sessions on my own. It was a job I only have to work a few hours every week or so, and it seemed simple. The older I got, the more I realized just how rewarding the experience really was, and how much more complex it was then commenting on hidden social rules.
I have struggled with social anxiety my whole life-- I would be the kid in class who would never raise my hand or speak to strangers (but with my own personal friends, my mouth would open and the torrent of words could not be contained.) You can imagine that for someone who had trouble making small talk with students in my own grade and classes, that having to do so with strangers in a professional environment completely based on social skills would be hard. And it was. Not only was I anxious to speak and contribute, but I would feel bad having to point out when a group member made a social faux paux. It was not until I started to bond with the clients that my viewpoint changed. They really did want to learn, and once they did and got good results from trying it out, it was really cool to join in on their excitement and improvement. Long term clients became some of the friends I still have today, completely outside of being in groups with them. Further, I saw how my social anxiety was becoming more manageable. I was more able to advocate for myself, speak to strangers, walk into job interviews, etc. Not only that, but it was simply fun. Every person on the autism spectrum is unique and has their own interests. Being able to interact with them, learn their interests, see their strengths as well as their challenges, it was something that inspired me. When I was in my sophomore year in high school, my district began a program called Peers where students could take a class doing what I did with my mom. I signed up right away, excited to be paired with other students in my own school. When I graduated and moved to East Lansing to attend university, I would still make the hour drive home for sessions or tutoring when I could. It is an experience I would recommend to anyone!
Written by: Katy Evans