The Meaning of Peer Support in Behavioral Health
What comes to mind when you think of the word peer? Someone who we can connect with who encounters similar experiences. Experiences that we share with a peer may include age, culture, education, employment, gender, health, language, and religion. In behavioral health, a peer in this context will share lived experiences pertaining to their mental and/or developmental health conditions to offer guidance and support to other individuals with those conditions.
Peers that have lived experience and interests with mental and/or developmental health conditions can support other individuals with those conditions by helping them achieve community and personal life goals through advocacy, education, mentoring, and motivation. Peers are able to connect individuals to information, people, resources, and support groups that help to hone their strengths while also identify their areas of need, which may include employment, education, housing, healthcare, and other aspects of life. Peers work with individuals to make certain that their voices are heard and respected in terms of their decisions, feelings, ideas, opinions, and thoughts as to how they want to fulfill their lives.
The Need for Autism Peer Specialists
The truth of the matter is that with the number of children being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, which is now 1 in every 54 children, and with the older adult population expected to rise by roughly 20% within the next decade or so, there is a growing need for services and supports for young adults and older adults as we acknowledge that ASD spreads across the lifespan. Autism peer specialists can guide and support professionals in working with individuals with autism spectrum disorder in schools, law enforcement, hospital settings, clinics, nursing homes, community centers, social work agencies, and other kinds of organizations. The opportunities are endless. Autism peer specialists can represent students with ASD and their families at schools at their annual IEP meetings to discuss accommodations and social/emotional supports that students can access to make certain their academic and social/emotional goals are being met. Autism peer specialists can educate police officers, firefighters, and EMTs on identifying the signs and symptoms of autism spectrum disorder and how to help these individuals when experiencing dangerous or life-threatening situations. Autism peer specialists can also work with medical personnel such as doctors and nurses on how to speak to individuals with ASD about medical conditions and treatments such as medication and surgery. Doctors and nurses may also learn from autism peer specialists how to present the medical information to these individuals in a clear and concrete way. These are some of many ways that autism peer specialists can work with professionals within society.
How can autism peer specialists, using their lived experiences and interests, bring hope and strength to autism communities? The bullet list below supports the answer to this question:
- I always remind people that, “It’s one thing to learn about autism, it’s another thing to live with it”. Lived experience is the guiding mechanism for relating to other people with ASD, especially when helping them identify their needs and strengths.
- People with autism spectrum disorder who are able to share their lived experiences and interests are not only making connections with other individuals with ASD, but with society as a whole.
- Autism peer specialists are capable of tapping into their backgrounds and experiences to share information and resources to advocate, educate, mentor, and motivate other individuals with autism spectrum disorder to help them make their own life choices.
- Autism peer specialists demonstrate several essential qualities and characteristics that emphasize the importance of being an exceptional “peer”: Acceptance; autonomy; awareness; critical thinking; compassion; empathy; experience; generosity; knowledge; perseverance; resilience; resourcefulness; teamwork; and transparency.
What Does Peer Support Look Like?
Establishing transparency between a peer specialist and another individual ASD is important. I have found as an autism peer specialist when I often share my personal challenges and successes with life situations, some individuals with autism spectrum disorder will share insight into their own lives, especially when they are being acknowledged, heard, and respected. Their hopes, their dreams, their challenges, their successes, all revealed to identify their strengths and needs. When helping and supporting individuals with autism, it is not about telling them how to go about life’s challenges and successes, but rather, asking them how they want to approach them. Individuals with ASD have a sense of autonomy and self-empowerment when they are able to direct their own life choices.
Being an autism peer specialist means to be an advocate, an educator, a mentor, and a motivator to individuals with autism spectrum disorders in helping them achieve personal and community integration goals. What this looks like in practice can vary. One form of support I can provide as an autism peer specialist is advocating on behalf of an individual to connect them with an agency that provides job placement assistance. Educating an individual on the importance of internet safety is another form of support that I may offer. I also mentor an individual with ASD on how to socialize in settings involving large groups of people, and work with them to generate a “change” plan to help them go from not participating in any social groups to participating in multiple social groups. Connecting individuals with autism spectrum disorder to different people, resources, and supports for extra assistance in meeting their specific needs is something else I do in this role.
We have professionals in various capacities that help and support individuals with ASD every day, but think about it, how many of those professionals can actually state that they themselves have lived experience with autism spectrum disorder, especially the hardships and successes, and are able to relate to the thoughts and feelings of these individuals? Not many. Autism peer support has the true potential to change lives for the better.
Ryan Litchfield is an autism and disability self-advocate with educational, personal, and professional experience in supporting the aging, autism, and disability communities. Ryan is passionate in sharing his life experiences with autism to help others pursue their personal and professional goals. He has over eight years of experience in public speaking, disability, and health advocacy across many communities within central Massachusetts. He is currently working full-time as an Autism Peer Specialist at Open Sky Community Services and part-time as a Trauma Informed Peer Support (TIPS) facilitator with KIVA centers as well as working on pursuing a Masters’ of the Arts in Rehabilitation Counseling at Assumption University beginning Spring 2021.