Florida Atlantic University s Center for Autism and Related Disabilities is the first in Florida to offer a program for teenagers with the disorder who struggle with their social lives. PEERS program director Ali Cunningham talks about the lessons she teaches.
“One of the first things that we focus on is having a reciprocal conversation, having a conversation that goes back and forth,” said PEERS program director Ali Cunningham. “Kids on the autism spectrum usually have more one-sided conversations.”
Ayla Hourigan, one of the program’s participants, was diagnosed with autism when she was 3 years old. As she grew older, it became harder for her to make friends.
“Whenever there was a pause in the conversation, I kept on talking and it was very hard for me to understand how kids hated me,” she said.
Hourigan said the program is helping her make changes.
“Once I used to be very cheerful and positive, but then a few years later I turned out to be very negative, so then this program is helping me cheer up and making me smile again,” she said.
The teens, who meet once a week for 14 weeks, discuss issues such as planning a get together or talking on the phone.
“Making a phone call is difficult,” said Ayla’s mother Fanny Hourigan. “In life eventually they’re going to have to learn to use the phone. Everything is not texting everything is not email. You go for a job interview and people want to talk to you.”
Cunningham hopes “that they apply these skills when they’re in college and when they’re in the work place so they can be successful socially after this program.”
The parents of the autistic children also meet in another room during the sessions.