The Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills (PEERS®) Program is an evidence-based social skills program developed for preschoolers, teens and young adults. It was created by Dr. Elizabeth Laugeson at UCLA. PEERS® was initially created for autistic individuals, but can also be utilized by youth with other social challenges.
The cool the thing about PEERS® is that it uses what they call “ecologically valid” social skills. These are skills that research has found are being used by people who are more naturally socially savvy. It does not judge these behaviors as “good” or “bad” but simply acknowledges that they tend to work well. We often give advice for meeting new people or making friends that does not work well. For example, going up to someone you’ve never met and saying, “Do you want to be my friend?” most likely isn’t going to land you a friend. (Side note: This happened to my friend’s toddler, who would make an amazing friend, but probably not to the 8-year-old boy who asked her that.)
PEERS® generally takes place in a group setting. This allows the teens and young adults to interact and practice skills with each other and group leaders. The program also includes what they call “social coaches,” who are usually parents or close friends who attend the program, learn the same skills, and then help the youth practice the skills. Social coaches are there to do what anyone else’s parents and friends would do. They get to say, “Hmm, maybe texting your crush three times in a row [with no response] is not the best idea?” but in a more skillful, empathetic way. The amazing thing about both of these features of PEERS® is that it results in long-term gains in social skills and engagement after the program.
Let me just emphasize how important this is. One, we know that loneliness is associated with poor mental and physical health. Two, we know autistic youth are going to have more social challenges and loneliness than the general population. A program like this can be life changing!
I also want to address one of the criticisms of social skills training. This program is not “masking” training. Masking refers to autistic individuals feeling pressured to hide their behaviors, such as stimming, to fit in. PEERS® isn’t asking anyone to change themselves or their personality; it simply gives concrete steps for managing challenging social situations and interactions.
If you’re in the Los Angeles area or California, you have direct access to the PEERS® Clinic at UCLA! Go you! They offer ongoing research studies, so you might even be able to access care for free. They also offer educational workshops that can be attended by people outside of the state and country.
For local people, Georgia State University has a PEERS® program. I also just became certified in PEERS® and will be offering individual coaching and group-based treatment options for teens and young adults at Anxiety Specialists of Atlanta.
Comment below any questions or if you have experience with PEERS®!