• Making Friends

The friendship challenges of teens with autism

Published: April 13, 2009 | Last Updated: August 23, 2022 By | Reply Continue Reading
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Imagine what high school is like for teens with autism and other disabilities who are beginning to realize they are different

Think back to your days in high school:

Do you remember your exaggerated concerns about your appearance—constantly worrying about your pimples or what you were wearing?

Do you recall the social cliques (e.g. nerds and jocks) that embraced some of your peers and drew circles to keep others out?

Imagine what high school is like for teens with autism and other disabilities who are just coming to terms with the realization that they are different and find that their peers are rebuffing them.

“It’s hard enough to be a teenager,” says UCLA clinical instructor of psychiatry Elizabeth Laugeson, “but it’s harder still for adolescents with autism because they typically lack the ability to pick up on all the social cues most of us take for granted — things like body language, hand gestures, and facial expressions, along with speech inflections like warmth, sarcasm or hostility.

Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), also known as Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDDs) can range from very mild cases to more severe ones. However, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), all children with ASD have deficits in three areas:

1) social interaction,

2) verbal and nonverbal communication, and

3) repetitive behaviors or interests.

To address these deficits, Laugeson and her colleagues developed and evaluated a special training program, called the Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills (PEERS) for teenagers with autism.

Since social interaction, communication and showing an interest in others are essential building blocks in developing and maintaining friendships, the 12-week UCLA PEERS program is designed to teach teens with autism the skills they need to relate to their peers that might not come naturally: This includes: how to join a group; how to choose a group; and how to handle bullying, teasing and arguments. The teens are given the chance to learn these skills through a range of modalities, including modeling, role-playing, and coaching.

“The class is very structured, and the skills are broken into small steps,” says Laugeson.  “For me, the most important outcome of this research is that we’re able to have a direct impact on the quality of life for teenagers with ASD,” Laugeson said.

“Helping them to develop meaningful relationships and feel more comfortable within their social world — these are essential ingredients to living a happy life, and what could be more important than that?”

Source: Press Release UCLA, Teaching autistic teens to make friends, April 7, 2009

April is Autism Awareness Month. To learn more about Autism and how you can promote awareness in your own community, visit the websites of the Autism Society of America or the National Institute of Mental Health.

Also on The Friendship Blog:

Leaving a program that doesn’t feel like a good fit for making friends

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