Mara McLoughlin tapped Jackie at Better, Smarter, Richer for guidance on starting her emotional education business. Jackie offered support and Mara’s business, IRL Social Skills evidence-based curriculum for autistic people, blossomed.
What the business does: “IRL (In Real Life) Social Skills’ interdisciplinary team of professionals teaches UCLA’s Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills (PEERS) curriculum to autistic teens and adults and their parents/caregivers. It’s the only evidence-based social skills curriculum available for these worthy individuals and families. PEERS is taught in 125 countries in 12 languages and offers a highly effective, strengths-based approach to teaching the skills of initiating, cultivating, and maintaining relationships.
“Additionally, we offer 15 minutes of supplementary education about the autistic neurotype’s strengths, meditation, and mindfulness. We also offer interoception skills (“the 8th sense”) – the sense that allows us to answer, “How do I FEEL?” at any given moment. People with autism can struggle with identifying their own emotions and the emotions of others. A body-based approach to our emotional lives helps us with co- and self-regulation, mental health, and social connection — great information for all humans!”
How did you come up with this business: “I was an unconventional student in my graduate program — older than most, and with a background in yoga and meditation. I became fascinated with autism. Neurodivergence was familiar to me, as there is undiagnosed autism in my family. In 2010, I started working as a speech therapist. Our scope of practice includes working with autistic individuals on social interaction and social communication. I saw right away that what we were supposed to do in terms of intervention just didn’t work. The lens was very ableist, using a medical, deficits-based approach, versus a social approach.
“Further, the way that social skills were taught in the schools was sorely lacking: 30 – 90 minutes a month on an Individual Education Plan (IEP). An evidence-based curriculum was not being used, and there was no parent training component. The skills didn’t generalize to any other social context.”
How Mara stepped-up social-emotional learning in the schools:
“However, the neuro-majority’s ignorance around neurodiversity and lack of empathy for people who communicate and process sensory information differently were also barriers. I worked in the schools with gifted occupational therapists and learning specialists. We pushed for a less restrictive training environment. That is the law in special education. I wanted to do something that actually worked to help people make and keep friends.
The dire statistics for autistic people regarding suicide, their short lifespan, and the lack of employment opportunities are disturbing. When I went to UCLA for the training to become a certified PEERS provider, I was initially skeptical. Longitudinal studies that showed those who participated in the program had an average of 4 get-togethers a month. That’s a social life!
“When the pandemic hit, I realized that this was my chance to manifest this dream, as we were all feeling the mental health impacts of social isolation. I assembled a team, made a website, and started posting on social media and on Google My Business. We taught our first class of 5 families from all across the country in March 2021.”
What are your successes?
Our greatest success is that our families learn and use many skills – In Real Life! We get emails, calls, and texts about how our learners are now engaging socially on a regular basis. The key is to get in where you fit in. Students and their parents use the skills to cultivate relationships by the end of the 16-week class. Parents are trained and empowered to help teens or young adults navigate the complicated social world. We were also the lucky recipients of a generous grant through the Oregon Department of Education and their Oregon Summer Grant Program. This has helped us offer scholarships and expand our programming.”
What are you still working on? “We have outgrown our current website. Therefore we are doing a site migration to a new learning management system software, so that’s very exciting! We also have a curriculum for students aged 5 – 10 in the works.”
How are you working with Jackie? “Jackie is my business coach through the SBDC, and her support has been invaluable.”
How has Jackie helped you? “Oh, when I was in despair and struggling to sell the class. I was thinking I should just get a job. Jackie told me, ‘Don’t you dare!’ She encouraged me to stay focused, network. She also suggested I reach out to MESO for a microloan, which got me through that cash flow crunch. I continue to learn so much from her!”
Visit Mara’s website/social media: