(left to right)
Back row: Khylil Robinson, Ardhika Aziz (behind Max, not visible), Max Woessner, Dana Kilgarriff, Benjamin Hartranft, Councilmember Derek Green, Douglas Ortelere, Katy Kaplan, Denny O’Brien
Front Row: Mary Kay Tuohy, Katie Croce, Max Zukin, Rachel Guttentag, Luke Tomczuk, Matthew Walsh, Gregory Bannett, Aliki Koumenis CAPS participant Adam Salomon not pictured
Training team: Mary Kay Tuohy, Katie Croce, Aliki Koumenis, Katy Kaplan (not pictured Lauren Flynn)
Philly Autism Project: City Councilmember Denny O’Brien and Former City Councilmember Denny O’Brien

On June 28, Community Behavioral Health (CBH) awarded certificates of graduation to 12 individuals from the first training course for the Community Autism Peer Specialist (CAPS) program. The CAPS training consisted of a three-week intensive class for those who wish to serve as peer mentors for individuals with autism in Philadelphia.

The program, slated to launch in Fall 2019, aims to pair individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) with trained CAPS peers. These peers, who themselves have autism, will help their mentees achieve personal wellness goals—relating to education, employment, interpersonal relationships, and other areas of interest—while focusing on furthering community integration. The program is part of a larger effort to enhance and expand services for Philadelphians with ASD. The new program also focuses on young people who are often less engaged with supportive mental health services. The CAPS program is being coordinated by CBH, in collaboration with Mental Health Partnerships.

The graduation ceremony at CBH marked the first step in finding peers for the program. Twelve individuals graduated from a three-week intensive training course designed to prepare them as potential CAPS hires. One trainee, Matthew Walsh, remarked that training had been “very busy.” Despite this, he found the skills he learned useful, even saying that “the curriculum that was developed for the CAPS program should not be exclusively taught to those with autism. These skills and lessons should be taught to all students.”

For others, the training was inspiring. Khylil Robinson, who describes himself as “very optimistic” about his ASD diagnosis, said that he wants to use his mentorship “to spread hope and awareness to anyone who could relate.” Through the program, he seeks to advocate for ASD awareness, better his community, and “just share a positive light.” Khylil also noted the flexibility of the training and the continual need to develop the program as it is practiced, saying “we will meet, we will adjust, and we will change.”

Katy Kaplan, CBH’s CAPS program coordinator, considers the launch of this pilot program a great success and looks forward to increased participation in the future. “As the program begins and develops, things will certainly evolve,” she said. “We could not have reached this milestone without our partners and the collective effort put forth to increase awareness and services for people living with ASD.”

Participating partners for the CAPS program include: the Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services (DBHIDS); the Philadelphia Autism Project; The Policy and Analytics Center at the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute at Drexel University; the Eastern Region Autism Services, Education, Resources, and Training Collaborative (ASERT); Valerie Paradiz, LLC; Mary Kay Tuohy; Mental Health Partnerships; Temple University Collaborative on Community Inclusion of Individuals with Psychiatric Disabilities; the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services’ Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, and Office of Development Programs.