April 21, 2015

Innovative program helps young adults with autism connect with peers

Werklund partners with The Ability Hub to study change in social skills

A year ago, if you’d told Braeden Krulicki that that he’d be excited and looking forward to spending an evening out with new friends, he might not have believed you.

Krulicki, who earned his bachelor's degree at the University of Calgary last year, has autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, and it is often difficult for him to find the balance between his online university studies and his social life.

“I thought I didn’t have time for maintaining friendships while doing my schooling,” says the 23-year-old. “Also, I am the type of person that once I get into a routine it is very hard for me to break it. This is especially true when there is no pressure for me to change.”

Because of this, Krulicki often shelved the idea of making friends in order to focus on school work.

Program addresses social challenges in young adults with ASD

Now however, he has several close friends, and regularly enjoys getting together with others for gaming sessions. And he credits a new program with getting him out of his shell.

Krulicki recently took part in the Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills for Young Adults (PEERS-YA), developed at UCLA to assist children and young adults with ASD in navigating the world of social skills and peer relationships.

The Calgary PEERS-YA program is run by The Ability Hub, an organization based at the University of Calgary’s Child Development Centre. Its mandate is to support adolescents and young adults with ASD in achieving their full potential.

“In my experience working in mental health, I’ve seen first hand the positive impact that early intervention strategies can have on individuals who face difficulties in their lives, “says Michael Barrett, a registered psychologist at The Ability Hub.

Current statistics show that today, one in 68 children will be born on the autism spectrum.

“People with ASD struggle with social interactions and communication, and with repetitive behaviours” explains Adam McCrimmon, associate professor and principal investigator of the Autism Spectrum Education, Research and Training (ASERT) lab research team in the Werklund School of Education.

The 16-week PEERS-YA program works with ten participants aged 18 to 28 and their caregivers, and includes skill-building sessions in areas such as engaging in conversations, choosing appropriate friends, handling social rejection, conflict resolution, and dating and intimate relationships.

Werklund study looks at what areas of development the program enhances

An added component to the program in Calgary is an ongoing research study being undertaken by the ASERT lab, the focus of which is to determine what areas of development are enhanced or improved as a result of the program. “Participants who agree to be a part of the research project will be asked to work with our team, who will consider both the participant’s mental health and social skills,” says McCrimmon.

“Caregivers will also be asked to provide their views on the young adult participant, as that will help us to understand if and when the participant shows development of their abilities.”

To date, 20 young adults have completed the PEERS-YA program, with a session currently underway. The Ability Hub is currently accepting applications for the next session, which will take place in the fall. The research study is a voluntary component to the PEERS program.

Krulicki's family believes the program has played a role in providing confidence and assurance in pushing him toward his goals. “He now has fun and interacts with others who are his own age,” says his father, Walter Krulicki.

“One night he told me he had a great discussion with some of the players (in his gaming sessions) about history and other subjects and I just smiled," he says. “Braeden has grown a lot and the program has helped in shaping him.

For his part, Braeden says, “I think that if I had to say anything to a person thinking of joining the program it would be that it is a great motivating factor to find friends.

“I would also tell them to have patience. There are things definitely worth learning, as long as you have an open mind and are willing to work for it.”