Friendly Intervention

Alumna Discovers The Science Behind Great Social Skills

The adolescent years can be difficult time for many when it comes to developing and maintaining friendships. For a person with autism, developing the social and coping skills necessary to develop meaningful friendships has an added layer of difficulty. Alumna Elizabeth Laugeson (MA ’00, PsyD ’04) has made it her life’s work to provide the tools to help make the social aspects of this disorder less of an obstacle.

Social impairments are one of the hallmark features of autism,” Laugeson said. “Most of the research up until now, has been focused on finding the cause of autism, which is important, but if you’re a person living with autism or are close to someone with autism, you want to know what you can do now.”

During her predoctoral internship at UCLA, Laugeson began to specialize in development disabilities, autism in particular. It was there that she discovered evidence-based social skills training.

“It’s a very different approach to dealing with mental health issues,” Laugeson said. “I had experience with crisis counseling and interventions, which always felt like I was putting out fires. Social skills training felt more like fire prevention.”

Her first experience with social skills training was a study funded by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) which was looking at the benefit of social skills training for kids with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. According to Laugeson, very few research funds go towards developing and testing effective interventions for people with autism.

A decade ago, there were some social skills programs for elementary-aged children but nothing for adolescents,” Laugeson said. “I decided that I really wanted to help not only fill the service gap but also produce more research.”

In 2004 Laugeson received a post-doctoral research fellowship from the National Institute of Health (NIH), which provided the funding for her to develop what is now known as the Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills (PEERS®). To develop the program, Laugeson spent a year researching literature to identify the social deficits that adolescents with autism were facing and the skills of adolescents who were “socially successful.”

“I also spent time conducting focus groups with teens with developmental disabilities and their parents to figure out what were the treatment priorities for these families,” Laugeson said. “I wanted to make sure I was developing a curriculum or an intervention that was going to meet their needs.”

The most unique feature, not seen in other social skills programs, was the aspect of parental involvement. By including the parents, the outcomes of the program could be extended beyond the 14 weeks of sessions.

“Parents often give their kids advice on social situations but we were dis-covering that many times, they were unknowingly giving the wrong advice,” Laugeson said. “We wanted to remedy that and teach parents to be social coaches to their kids.”

An example of ineffective advice parents typically give is in regards to teasing. Children are often instructed to ignore the perpetrator, walk away, or tell another adult. Laugeson said that most teens will state that this approach is not successful.

“This advice does not work because it is not an ecologically valid strategy,” Laugeson said. “It doesn’t matter how popular you are, every kid gets teased. It’s how you react to it that determines how severely or chronically you’re teased.”

The advice that PEERS participants receive is to respond verbally in a way that shows that the comment did not bother them. Responses like, “whatever” or “am I supposed to care?” take the fun out of teasing the person and the teasing is more likely to subside.

Due to the fact that many of the PEERS participants have struggled socially in the past, part of the program centers on recovering from a bad reputation. Laugeson shared the story of one participant who before PEERS, was only known for his trademark article of clothing.

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A young adult who went through our program two years ago was known at his college campus as “the trench coat kid” because he would wear this black leather trench coat wherever he went, year-round. Kids would notice it and they would point it out.

A couple of the other issues he had related to things like hogging conversations, being intrusive when he entered conversations, and trying to be funny all the time, even when it wasn’t appropriate. As he went through the program, he started replacing some of these bad social habits with more appropriate hab­its like trading information, which is the term we used for having a good cconversation that goes back and forth.

When it came time to address changing his reputation, we knew that the trench coat was going to be a barrier for him. His initial reaction was, “I’m not getting rid of it,” but after only a few minutes, without any prodding from his parents or myself, the young man changed his mind.

His parents set him up with some new clothes and he came back the next week just completely transformed. It wasn’t just a makeover. He was open to the process and with the support of his parents and our team, he was really able to make and keep friends. He continues to do very well socially.

Laugeson has seen many success stories in the past 10 years. For her, it was crucial that as many families as possible have access to the resources available to those who lived near the UCLA campus.

I’m very proud of the resources that we’ve made available to families,” Laugeson said. “It’s important to do this kind of research and develop and test evidence-based treatments, but it’s equally important to make sure they’re accessible to people.”

Recently she published a guide for parents titled, The Science of Making Friends: Helping Socially Challenged Teens and Young Adults. It was intended for parents who can’t access the PEERS program. The book teaches all the same skills but in a narrative, self-help format and includes a companion DVD. There is also a smartphone app called FriendMaker that functions as a virtual coach.

Laugeson has worked hard to remove any barriers to accessing the program. Special training sessions and manuals are also available for mental health professionals and educators who want to run a similar program in their communities.

“The program has already been translated into six different languages and is being used in over a dozen countries,” Laugeson said. “Many of my research colleagues are actually testing the effectiveness of the PEERS program through cross-culture validation trials.”

Some of the countries where the program is being tested include South Korea and Israel. There is similar research now taking place in countries like Turkey, Argentina, and Holland.

“It’s very gratifying to work directly with families and to see teens transform before your eyes,” Laugeson said. “We could hoard our intervention and force people to come to UCLA to access the program, but I don’t believe in that type of work. I want to make it accessible to as many people as possible.”

For more information on PEERS, visit semel.ucla.edu/peers.

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