A developing therapy program at Marquette is helping teens and young adults with autism to develop social interaction skills — and maybe change their brains in the process.
The PEERS (Program for the Enrichment and Education of Relational Skills) study, originally designed at UCLA, is directed at Marquette by Amy Van Hecke, an assistant professor of psychology.
“The brain is being plastic and flexible and changing,” Van Hecke said. “We look at children or teenagers with autism before and after intervention.”
“What we are trying to see is: Does supporting the children’s and teens’ development of friendships change their brain activity?” she added.
The PEERS program has already had success in changing the lives of people with autism. Since its inception, it has found a substantial increase in the activity level of the portion of the brain dealing with social interaction.
To foster such growth, Van Hecke and the graduate students involved in the study teach students and their parents how to interact in basic social settings. It’s like a form of therapy in that they try to eliminate the feelings associated with the social setting.
“We’ve already seen in the preliminary analysis that the kids are showing more activity in areas of the brain that both respond to social things in the environment and are also responsible for initiating social responses like eye contact and things like that,” Van Hecke said.
The participants in the PEERS program aren’t the only people having their lives changed in the process. Kirsten Schohl, a second-year doctoral student in the clinical psychology program and a PEERS project coordinator, has seen the life-changing effects firsthand and believes anyone involved in the program benefits. With regards to the children, though, Schohl was especially enthusiastic.
“The participants of PEERS gain so much knowledge about social interactions and social skills they can utilize for the rest of their lives,” Schohl said. “We teach them the unwritten social skills that will benefit them throughout school, college, jobs and the many social interactions they will have.”
Since an April 2 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article on the PEERS program, the program has seen a tremendous increase in the number of people interested in participating. With all the positive buzz the article generated, the waiting list for the program rapidly expanded, something Van Hecke has cherished.
“We have over 65 kids on the wait list to go through the groups, and then we have 35 young adults waiting for that version,” Van Hecke said. “The more children, teens and young adults we run through the program, the more data we have and the more complex questions we can ask about the brain changes.”
However, with this recent growth in numbers, the PEERS program has a growing need for more funds. Currently, the program is funded solely by a grant from the Autism Society, and if it wishes to expand its operations it needs more money.
“We are currently applying for larger grant funding,” Van Hecke said. “Mainly what we need is to really get more funding for graduate student support because the graduate students really run the groups. If we had more graduate support, we could have more groups, so that’s why we have 65 kids waiting,”
Unfortunately for the program, a lack of funding isn’t the only thing threatening it. A current debate in the diagnostic world could change the diagnosis for autism, leaving the PEERS program would be at an impasse.
“It would mean that fewer individuals would get diagnosed with autism because the diagnosis becomes more strict,” Van Hecke said. ”It causes more symptoms to be required to receive the diagnosis.”
Van Hecke said if the proposed changes become reality, many individuals in the PEERS program would no longer meet the diagnosis for autism.
“Our group is tailored to the ‘high-functioning’ individuals who have relatively normal to high intelligence,” Van Hecke said. “They might show fewer symptoms because they’ve learned to adapt. And if you’re successful in teaching them they may not show those things, those other red flags for symptoms.”
Jeffrey Karst, a fourth-year doctoral student in clinical psychology, agreed but said the definition of autism needs to be changed. Karst has worked with the PEERS Program for two years as a group leader.
“I am all for improving the classifications of Autism Spectrum Disorders, as I think the diagnosis may be too broad as it currently stands,” Karst said. “However, I worry that the current proposals will leave ‘higher-functioning’ individuals without options for treatment that is desperately needed.”