DC Peers was started by a family affected by autism. We founded it because we needed it, and knew we weren’t alone.
Like many families of kids on the spectrum, we had always wished that our AS son/brother had a peer who understood him and could include him in activities and in some of the secrets of teenage life. Social skills lessons in schools and clinics, regardless of their quality, don't provide what only peers can: social practice and friendly advice. And without help, classmates who would like to help their socially isolated peers don't know how. Our schools don’t teach about neurological differences.
We started DC Peers as a peer social coaching group that would provide that guidance and create a safe place to learn and practice socializing. We tried to make it fun, improvisatory, low-key, and "cool"—something that both autistic and neurotypical teenagers would actually want to be part of. We incorporated as a nonprofit so that we could give community service hours — to both the typical and the spectrum participants.
From the beginning, the key to the culture we wanted to develop was that the learning would be two-way, not one-way — that both the typical and the spectrum kids would learn and benefit from each other, and develop respect and friendly affection for each others' differences. We wanted the kids to give each other social feedback, but it needed to be grounded in genuine understanding and respect for each other. All of the participants have appreciated this approach and have learned from the experience.
inspired by UCLA'S PEERS®
The activities for our sessions were inspired by the UCLA PEERS® curriculum, which my son had done at the Center for Autism Assessment and Treatment (CAAT). The PEERS® curriculum takes teens and their parents/coaches through the nuts and bolts of "making and keeping friends" in a wonderfully concrete and clear way.
The curriculum was also a good fit for our groups, because it provides specific, universal teenage social situations to focus on and practice: how to start or join conversations with peers, how to find people who share your interests, how to initiate and host get-togethers, how to tell if kids are laughing at or laughing with you when you tell a joke...and the advice is sound. Because we have the freedom of being a nonprofit and not a research institution or clinic, we could add variety and new elements to the lessons: movie clips, funny YouTube videos, ideas from Michelle Garcia Winner's Social Thinking®, and topics we create when they seem called-for — like our session on going to parties.
After we ended the first session of Club Peers, all of the kids who were not graduating wanted to continue, so we started "Club II," for which we had to begin creating all-new lessons, such as "Being Interested and Interesting," or "Telling Anecdotes." One of our favorite sessions was just playing games—while remembering to "go with the flow" and to laugh at ourselves if we were losing.
focus on neurodiversity
A key element of our programs, projects, and culture is our focus on teaching and learning about neurodiversity — a growing social and civil rights movement that is raising awareness of autism, and other neurological differences, as naturally-occurring variants in the human genome, not defects. We begin the Clubs with orientations that teach both neurotypicals and their autistic peers about each other, so that they will be able to respect, interact with, and teach each other as equals, with different strengths and weaknesses. As simple as this seems, it is a fresh angle, and helpful for autism spectrum teens who have gotten the message, most of their lives, that their instincts are wrong. Our message is that smiling back at someone, for example, is not the morally right thing to do, just a good social strategy because it reassures the neurotypicals who expect it.
This year we continue to delve into these questions and problems, with the help of our participants, advisors and our newly formed DC Peers Think Tank.
We are still a very small and entirely volunteer-run organization, but we are trying new things. We run monthly social activities that friends are invited to join, such as trivia Nights, pottery-painting, bowling, hikes. Wilson student volunteers have joined us at Teen Time at the Tenley Library, as a volunteer "Inclusion Team," to make it more explicitly inclusive and neurodiversity-friendly. We are experimenting with improv, and planning a neurodiversity panel. We want to do as much as we can, as quickly as we can, to expand the social opportunities for teens and young adults who have been isolated by their neurological differences.