Let's get to know the Social Connection Program

Let's get to know the Social Connection Program

By: Yarimar Marrero Rodríguez

Did you know that on February 1 of this year, an innovative program called Social Connection began to be implemented in SER de Puerto Rico, which seeks to develop social skills, such as making friends or developing relationships, in young people and adults on the autism spectrum . Our institution is a pioneer in Puerto Rico in implementing the program as established in PEERS (Program for the Education and Enrichment of Social Relations) developed at UCLA (University of California Los Angeles). To learn more about Social Connection, we talked with the psychiatrist and coordinator of the SER Program in Puerto Rico, Dr. Joahnibel Reyes Maysonet.

YMR: What is the origin of this medical/therapeutic practice that is developed in the Social Connection Program in SER of Puerto Rico?

JRM: This program began on February 1, 2023 in SER and is a derivative of the PEERS program of Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. We trained with those from UCLA to be able to implement PEERS in Puerto Rico. It is a program that has a very strict protocol to follow because all the data generated is used for research. It is an evidence-based approach to the best strategies for teaching social skills to adults specifically on the autism spectrum. The idea of implementing it in Puerto Rico came to me after seeing the program Love on the Spectrum from Netflix That's when I found out there was a program called PEERS. Dr. González told me "look, the training is being done virtually" and we said, let's take it because we usually have to travel to California. The program has 16 to 18 sessions. In these sessions I work with the group on social skills such as: starting a conversation, how to maintain and end it, how to participate in group conversations, how to express your needs assertively, even all the dating skills and that coaching how to find a partner

YMR: Did you have to work on adaptations to the PEERS model to replicate it in Puerto Rico?

JRM: One of the things that we noticed is that the Program is adapted to the American culture and one of the things that we had to work on was to adapt it to our culture in terms of social skills because they are not the same as those of the United States. In Puerto Rico we are making a cultural adaptation and we are also adding two independent living sessions. Every time a cultural adaptation is worked on, it is written down and goes to a data document that is collected and sent there for them to review and it can be published and adapted to Latin America. PEERS has already been implemented in Argentina, but they, although they are from Latin America, have more European adaptations, so we would be the first to give it that Latin American twist.

YMR: What is the main focus of Conexión Social and who can benefit from it?

JRM: The Program is designed for people within the level one spectrum, who do not require much support in social communication skills. This first group has 8 participants within the spectrum between the ages of 18 to 26 and 8 social trainers. Most of them were SER participants that I knew, being the pilot group it was good that I knew their background and could verify that they had family support. In the second phase it will be opened to the public. The Program has two groups, I work with young people teaching them social skills and there is another group of social trainers who can be family members or couples. We already have a participant who has his girlfriend. While I train the kids and teach them the skills, the coaches will learn how to teach them the skills in order to follow up, because the focus is that once the skill is learned it can be replicated abroad and they can implement it in universities, in jobs and the environments they go to.

YMR: What objectives do you hope to achieve with the implementation of the Program in SER?

JRM: What we as a team want to achieve is that these kids, most of whom are already studying or want to start working, can develop basic social skills so that their integration into work and academic environments is easier. Most of them go through a lot of work and have a lot of difficulty making that transition to the university or to a job and in many cases they do not participate in these environments because they do not know how to enter a new environment. My role as coordinator is to ensure that each one of them can have an easier transition, to be able to see what works for us and what does not work for us in Puerto Rico, and to see what things could be adapted for the second phase.

YMR: How do you see the level of enthusiasm of the young people who are participating in this first group?

JRM: They are super "pomp", they have planned to go to Comic Con, which is the first social activity that they chose to have and they will be accompanied by three social trainers from our team. They are going to go two by two and the goal is to meet new people. The coaches They will be all over the Convention Center in case they get stuck, can't talk to someone, or lack social skills, the coach will be there to help them.

YMR: Do you think it is necessary to expand this type of services to people with autism and their families in Puerto Rico?

JRM: That is why we are so focused on this program because when they are little they focus on services such as speech, occupational and physical therapy and that is perfect, but as they grow older there is no help in social aspects and when they reach the age of being young adults have a greater risk of having anxiety and depression and of an increased risk of suicide due to the loneliness experienced by these adults with autism. It is a myth that people with autism do not want to socialize. The Department of Education here is until 21 and I think that this Program can be implemented from 18 to 21 so that they come out with the skills and it is easier for them to integrate into the new scenarios, it should be a requirement. Our mission is that at some point with more personnel we can also replicate this Program in the Ceiba and Ponce centers and be able to impact those areas of Puerto Rico.