Friendship ‘boot camp’ helps autistic teens cope

“I know I’m weird, and I know I’m not normal,” said Andrea, who looks like a young Anne Hathaway with braces. “I’ve always known I’m not normal.”

Andrea found company from nine other high-functioning autistic teens who enrolled in a 14-week friendship boot camp earlier this year. More than 100 teens have graduated from the UCLA Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills, or PEERS for short, which costs $100 a session and is covered by many insurers.

Unlike other autism interventions, parents also must participate. They learn to become social coaches for their children so that their new skills can be retained when the program is over.

Every week, Laugeson, a peppy clinical psychologist known as “Dr. Liz,” leads the students through a maze of social survival skills: how to have a two-way conversation, how to trade information to find common interests, how to gracefully enter a conversation, and how to be a good host. In class, the teens role-play with one another and also must practice what they’ve learned outside of class in weekly homework assignments.

Laugeson peppers the lessons with friendly reminders about proper etiquette:

“Don’t be a conversation hog.”

“Give a cover story for why you are calling.”

“Don’t be an interviewer.”

“Say you’re sorry when you make someone angry, sad, or upset.”

“You need to trade information at least 50 percent of the time during the get-togethers.”

Earlier this year, Laugeson published a study in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders on how the parent-involved training has worked so far. In a study of 33 autistic teens, those who went through the program had more friends come to their houses than those who did not.

“There isn’t much research on social group training that incorporates parents. That’s a key factor for success,” said Barbara Becker-Cottrill, who heads the West Virginia Autism Training Center at Marshall University. She has no connection with PEERS, but has reviewed Laugeson’s research. “Parents are children’s first and probably best teachers.”

Despite the gains, Laugeson said the program is not a cure-all. Parents know this and don’t expect their children to blossom into social butterflies overnight.

Andrea’s mother has two goals: “I hope she becomes a better conversationalist and feels more comfortable around her peers.”

Andrea’s journey through an unfamiliar social world has been filled with some stumbles.

During a role-playing exercise, she was paired with a classmate to talk about their favorite book. Andrea was so eager to share her love of Gone with the Wind that she lapsed into a two-minute monologue about the plot. A counselor stepped in and reminded her not to be a “conversation hog.”

One of Andrea’s early attempts to inject herself into an existing conversation revealed some awkwardness. As a group of classmates chatted away about an animated movie, Andrea stood aloof, avoiding eye contact and unsure of what to do. Laugeson pulled her aside, advising her to listen and find a pause.

By the time Andrea rejoined the group, the discussion had switched to macadamia nuts. Andrea saw an opening and chimed in: “Well, I’ve tried macadamia nuts and they’re pretty good. When I was little, I would eat a lot.”

As time went on, Andrea’s confidence improved. Through practice, she has let go of her tendency to be an interviewer during phone calls. On her own, she came up with the idea of asking the kids who were signing her yearbook to jot down their phone numbers too, a ploy that won her praise from the counselors and gave her a pool of potential friends to call.

Other teens in the class also progressed, but at a slower pace.