Young man with Autism gets first job an moves out of home after taking part in unique program. - Allied Magazine
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Young man with Autism gets first job an moves out of home after taking part in unique program.

Michael Stanton is a 21-year-old Sydney man who was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) at age two. Up until May this year, he was living at home, had no job and had few friends. Michael’s life changed after completing a unique, 16-week program for young adults with autism: he got his first job, moved out of home to live independently from his parents’ and began to develop a stronger friendship network.

Michael is one of many young adults with autism around the world who have gained independence by participating in the PEERS program. PEERS (Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills) is a proven social skills program for young adults with autism that will be introduced in Australia by its founder, Dr Elizabeth Laugeson, in a major-three day workshop this month.

While the program is achieving significant results for young people, like Michael, a new study released this week reveals that more than 40 per cent of autistic young adults in Australia have ‘severe’ or ‘extreme severe’ levels of depression – comparable to those with primary mental health disorders – and that there are a lack of research services available to target this groups’ needs.[1]

Professor Adam Guastella, a co-author of the paper who will be presenting at the PEERS conference in January 2019, says: “With an increasing number of young adults becoming diagnosed with ASD, the transition into adulthood remains a topic of important need. As young adults are at risk of feeling disconnected during the transitional period, there is a great need for research-based programs, like PEERS, that teach the skills young people need to navigate challenging social situations. PEERS does all that by equipping young people with the skills required to gain independence through a 16-week workshop.”

Michael went through the PEERS for Young Adults program at Cerebral Palsy Alliance – a non-profit that provides services to people with cerebral palsy, developmental delay, and other physical and neurological disabilities, to help them lead independent and inclusive lives. During weekly group sessions, Michael was taught straightforward ‘do-and-don’t’ behavioural tactics, through rehearsal exercises, role-play and performance feedback. The program involves parents and carers, who also attend weekly sessions, and help their young adult continue practising the learned behaviour during and after the course is completed.

Michael’s mother, Suzanne, said, “Before partaking in the PEERS program, Michael was very reliant on my husband and I to initiate social activities for him. He had few friends at school and did not have an interest in seeking out social opportunities. One of the biggest things the program taught Michael was to recognise the need to put in effort to build and maintain friendships. He now has the confidence to initiate social contact that he wouldn’t have done before.

“Some weeks, Michael had to travel alone from Menai to Ryde, where the program was held, and he was incredibly proud of his ability to do this independently. Since partaking in the program, we’ve watched his independence grow, and he has got his first job in a café, where he has been for three months. This job is great for Michael, as it requires him to use the communication skills he acquired through the PEERS program. He’s also living independently from us on the other side of Sydney, which is a huge step, and he is initiating get-togethers with friends, such as movie nights.”

Certified PEERS trainer Teigan Butchers, PEERS Australia spokesperson and Manager of Youth Services at Cerebral Palsy Alliance, said: “It is very difficult for young people with autism to transition after high school, and there is a lack of social skills programs and services to help them. The PEERS program has been very successful for these participants, as it teaches them the skills to build and maintain relationships, gain independence and grow their confidence. The young adults that have gone through our program have not only been able to make friends and join social groups, but enrol in university, get their first job and even move out of home.”

[1] Park et. al, ‘Disability, functioning, and quality of life among treatment-seeking young autistic adults and its relation to depression, anxiety, and stress,’ 17 January 2019, p. 2, 11: https://journals.sagepub.com/eprint/tD6XnRKT8SiAyNbRrVj8/full

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