This is a guest post by Adriana Azor who is currently doing a Neuroscience PHD at Imperial Collage London and founder of BePeers with her partner Carl (MBA, Stanford).
Peer-coaching as a “handbook of the neurotypical society”
I learn a lot from the people in my life, especially those I admire. My younger brother is one of them. Perhaps the most important inspiration. It’s not a hyperbole when I say he’s an underlying factor influencing my decisions, my dreams, and my plans.
To uncover the mysteries of the human brain I became a neuroscientist. To share the wonders of the human brain I became a blogger. I fell in love with my partner in part because I saw the genuine love and respect, he has for my brother. Not only does he accept neurodiversity, but embraces it as a unique power — the power of being oneself, free from society’s expectations, rules, and hypocrisy. He showed me how, in our own way, we’re all a little neurodiverse.
As the years passed, he became a buddy to my brother, the example of a peer who does not treat him differently, a coach, and a bridge between neurotypical and neurodiverse.
The power of such simple actions was undeniable. He wasn’t there to change him and make him fit into the “correct” majority. There were so many others already doing it: from doctors to special ed teachers, to counsellors and therapists.
What he needed was a neutral person from the “opposite” camp, telling him what it’s like to be neurotypical, without imposing it. A handbook of others, in a way.
Let’s consider the following. The evidence suggests that ~15% of the population is neurodiverse. This number is increasing at fascinating rates: 150% between 2000 and 2018.
A big fraction of this population faces social struggles, which often end up developing into a fear of others and anxiety over interactions. The desire to connect with others is very deep but the how, the when, and the why are different. As a result, they end up having fewer friends — sometimes none at all — and participate in fewer social and recreational activities.
They end up isolating, not out of choice, but rather out of necessity and self-preservation. This, in time, develops into a vicious circle of exclusion from standard everyday occupations.
Social disorientation is frightening and destabilizing for anyone. As the rate of neurodiverse children and adults increases, the world is starting to understand what neurodiversity means:
“Variation in the human brain regarding sociability, learning, attention, mood and other mental functions in a non-pathological sense”
Neurotypical individuals are empowered to live and work with neurodiverse peers. It’s now less about adapting the minority to society, and more about creating an understanding and inclusive society, who’s less hostile to differences in social abilities. We’re starting to “think smarter about people who think differently”.
Coming back on the two points mentioned earlier, a way to improve inclusivity, opportunities, and quality of life of the neurodivergent population would require:
1) Raising awareness in the neurotypical population
2) Explaining the perspective of the neurotypical majority to the neurodiverse
The case for peer coaching
You would think that what helped my brother most were the special educators, his IEP, the counselors, the therapist, the army of professionals at school and outside. They helped him, but these weren’t the intervention that had the biggest impact on him. It was and still is, one tiny simple thing that unlocks his potential and equips him with the self-confidence he desperately needs: interacting with peers who do not judge him, do not
talk to him like a child, do not look at him differently, nor patronize him, do not annoyingly ignore his quirky conversations.
What helped him was to spend time with someone who wasn’t trying to change him, mould him to fit expectations, who wasn’t watching him with a diagnostic eye, analyzing his every word and every movement, and reacting from a treatment plan strategy. What helped him was to have someone who listened, someone who understood, someone who explained why others reacted the way they did without throwing blame and condemning.
And he is not the only one. There’s a growing body of evidence suggesting that peer coaching can sometimes be more effective than any other type of intervention, whether we’re talking about neurodiversity or not.
Peer-to-peer coaching has already been implemented in corporate environments, in classrooms, for medical reasons or life assistance. It’s affordable, organic, scalable, and easy to implement. It’s a confidential process through which people work together to expand, refine, and build new skills, share ideas, solve problems, and teach one another based on trust and established rapport. Two key components of such an approach are trust and reflection. The word coaching might imply a hierarchical and unequal interaction, that one person in the collaborative relationship has a different, more knowledgeable status. But the truth is, label aside, the focus is on the collaborative development of both parties. It isn’t and shouldn’t be
perceived as a remedial activity or strategy to “fix” someone. Or else, it loses its essence.
As peer coaching has been gaining traction, we see new and evolved types of coaching relationships. It’s becoming as tailored, individual, and unique as the team who undertakes it.
If we look at peer-coaching as a means of support for addressing development challenges, why can’t it be integrated into the neurotypical/neurodiverse understanding and inclusivity challenge?
On one hand, this interaction teaches the neurotypical society what it means to think differently, how a brain can function unusually. Not abnormally, but rather uniquely, and all the advantages this uniqueness brings to the table.
And on the other hand, going through peer-coaching activities, the neurodiverse community can practice social skills, start to understand a society, which from the outside might look hostile, and equip them with the required self-confidence to stop isolating out of self-preservation.
Why we started BePeers
BePeers is an online social coaching platform to build awareness, understanding, skills, confidence, and wellness, one interaction at a time.
Bepeers matches neurodiverse individuals with peer mentors/coaches (neurotypical or neurodiverse), closely supervised by licensed professionals, for virtual interaction, companionship, games, social skills development and conversations.
Our initial pilot is coming soon and will focus on young adults between the ages of 13 and 16, who would like to try a peer-coaching approach. We hope to create an amazing experience for all parties involved, especially the coaching pair.
We truly believe in everything we just said. We think that building a peer coaching platform will allow for:
a) the necessary social exposure for all those involved
b) a much more affordable solution
c) the training, skills and supervision our coaches need
d) the first step to a better integration of the neurodiverse community
We’re launching our pilot in the UK. If you’re interested, have any questions, would like to know or hear more about it, or want to be involved, register your interest on our website, or reach out to us at : email@example.com