For most people, friendships are what help to make life bearable. When we’re at our lowest ebb, it’s always comforting to have someone close to us offering a shoulder to cry on or words of encouragement. Sometimes, it’s good to share, but is it any different for autistic people, both as children and adults?
It’s no secret that some autistic people, regardless of age, find it difficult to engage with other people. However, when times are tough and we need someone to talk to, peer support is just about the best intervention possible in times of crisis or even for those small, niggling problems that might seem almost insignificant.
So, how does peer support work and how can it be of benefit to autistic people? I’ll explain it and show how it’s done, both in one-to-one and group scenarios.
What is peer support?
Peer support is, put simply, where someone offers advice, knowledge or some other form of help to a person who’s in a similar situation. In autism circles, it’s usually offered by a peer who is autistic or the parent/carer of someone who is.
It’s a highly valuable tool which is often used by organisations to enable people who find it difficult to speak up or find answers to their problems to hear what they need to. Getting peer support from someone who has had broadly similar life experiences can be comforting, as well as refreshing.
How to give peer support
Amongst autistic adults, it’s best to give peer support if you’re autistic yourself or have extensive experience of what it means to be autistic e.g. if you’re a parent to autistic children. To give it, it’s worth doing any of the following:
- Expressing empathy
- Expressing sympathy
- Offering relevant, easy-to-follow advice
- Not interrupting when the person receiving peer support is speaking
- Sharing personal experience; this ties in with empathy
Whilst it’s not possible to do all of this in one go, it certainly helps to at least listen and advise. However, when offering peer support, it’s important to get it right when advising. If you want to offer it, make sure you know what you’re talking about; the wrong advice could steer someone in the wrong direction, making it harder to achieve the desired outcome.
The two most important parts of peer support are listening and empathy. The former also involves not interrupting someone while they’re pouring their heart out, while the latter is something that many autistic people are capable of. If anything, some of us express too much empathy!
When and where to give it
One of the best things about peer support is that it isn’t limited to certain environments or time of the day. However, some places and times are more autistic-friendly than others. In person, choose somewhere quiet and comfortable like a cafe, community centre or even a living room/lounge.
You can also offer peer support through other means:
- Offer to ring someone if they need to vent
- Exchange emails with someone needing peer support
- Offer to talk via instant messaging on Facebook, WhatsApp or Snapchat
- Do a video call via Skype or Google Hangouts
- Set up a peer support group in your area for autistic adults, adolescents or parents/carers of autistic people
The fact that there are so many ways of communicating quickly and easily means that, if someone you know who’s autistic isn’t comfortable with talking face-to-face, instant messaging, phone calls and the like are far better.
As for when to give it, a lot depends on when is most convenient. Weekday evenings when a lot of stuff tends to happen during the daytime at school, college, university or work are ideal, as whatever has happened is likely to remain fresh in the memories of those needing support.
However, it can be given at any time. At school for example, if your child has an autistic friend who’s struggling, they can talk to them during breaktime or lunchtime. At work, the lunch break or a few minutes in between tasks can be used for a little ad hoc peer support.
Setting up a peer support group
As someone who’s involved in running three peer support groups in my local area, I know what tends to work. If setting up such a group, it’s worth going round the room so that everyone has at least a few minutes to speak. It doesn’t work for everyone, but so long as the others present don’t interrupt and offer useful advice, this is how a peer support group should work.
To set one up, you need the following things:
- A quiet space where sensory overload is unlikely to happen
- Comfortable chairs for people to sit in
- A regular meeting time so that people know when to go
- A website, blog and/or social media account to share details of your group
Peer support comes in so many forms, but however it’s given, it can be a lifeline for many autistic adults and children. Why not see how you can get it in place and see whether it works for you and the autistic people in your life.