Young Adult's Story

For Yanning, the opportunities became endless.

Yanning Zuo

I got an ASD diagnosis when I was 23 years old. Before that, the first two decades of my life were a disaster. As I became aware of my own condition, my own social awkwardness seemed to be amplified in my mind and I was so frustrated by negative comments from others. I managed to learn some social skills through trials and errors, with the help of my roommates in college. Despite this, the social world was still a great challenge for me.

In my first two years of graduate school, I avoided every possible social interaction. I would have my lunch at 3pm, just to avoid talking with my colleagues in the kitchen. I was drained by the end of the day, suffering from endless replays of the dialogues with others. I would get upset about whether my lab mate was laughing at me or only making a joke.

I realized that I needed help to boost my social skills. My therapist recommended the PEERS® social skill group for young adults. However, I wasn’t able to participate in the session due to a time conflict for my husband (as my social coach). Also, I felt it was not an optimal fit for me since the program was aimed at making friends and romantic relationships. I already have a husband and a few good friends, and personally I really don’t have the motivation to socialize for fun.

When I was asking about the next PEERS® session, to my surprise I was told that there was a clinical trial for career-related social skills. I was so excited because it sounded like a good fit for me as I was seeking more work-orientated social skills rather than casual social skills. I immediately replied to show my interest in this program and after an evaluation, I got admitted into the program.

The step-by-step protocol for different skills was so easy to comprehend for my ASD brain. After memorizing these protocols, I would visualize a checklist in my mind. Once I was done with one step, I would put a checkmark. Also, the gradual format of the assignments benefited me a lot. I was very nervous about having to talk to someone as a part of the homework, but instead of making me do it right away, we were asked to practice first by getting familiar with related expressions, then practicing with our social coaches. This gradual exposure not only familiarized me with the skill itself, but also decreased the daunting amount of anxiety I used to associate with social interactions. In addition, I got a bit more confident after each trial. I was working with Katherine Sung as my social coach and she was awesome. We discovered each other’s interest in farmer’s markets and we would go visit the one in Westwood to do more practices and for fun.

Besides the efficient form of training, the curriculum was very helpful for me. I benefited from most of the topics, especially the ones about conversational skills and interviewing. I had done a lot of interviews before with the latest one being my graduate school interview, but this was the first time I got to learn about interviewing systematically. I tried to impress people a lot in my own manner, and after learning, I got to know which ones were appropriate and which were not. I was especially impressed by the demonstration given by Dr. Marc Weintraub about his slow and confident way of talking, instead of my fast way of trying to deliver more message and not taking into consideration whether the interviewer could follow or not.

There are also a few topics that were not so helpful for me, such as organization skills and relaxation skills since I am super organized and have found my ways of relaxing. However, I do believe many people will benefit from these topics. There are also topics that did not interest me at first, but turned out to be very helpful. The very first class was about choosing a career, including knowing myself. I thought I was rather clear about this, but I still did the homework. Two months later I was about to start my own research project and a few of my earlier proposals were turned down by my mentor. I thought about the homework and made a document showing my strengths, weaknesses, and goals. After a discussion with my mentor, I decided to change from experimental projects to computational ones, and it turns out to be a great fit for me. I had never had a chance to do computational training before, but I am glad that I got to know myself better through the homework analysis. Otherwise, I would have lost this precious fit for my strengths.

In summary, I really enjoyed my PEERS® for Careers program and if I were to elaborate on everything I learned, then this testimonial would be a book. I wish I could have learned these skills when I was younger, but I am glad that I know these skills now. I still get out my handouts once in a while to review and hone my skills, and I am better prepared for the everyday social interactions in my life.