Friendship ‘boot camp’ helps autistic teens cope

A fellow 13-year-old, Elias Cazares Jr., was diagnosed with autism two years ago. He displays more outward signs of the disorder–rocking back and forth, constantly blinking, fidgeting with his face. Elias is obsessed with video games and talks of nothing else.

Unlike Andrea, who got therapy growing up, this is the first time Elias has had professional help.

At times, the pressure is too much. One day after class, Elias had a meltdown and refused to do the following week’s homework–calling someone outside of the group. Elias confided to Laugeson that he was teased at school and did not want to befriend the bullies. She calmed him down and said he could dial a cousin instead.

Despite the struggles, Elias’ father is proud of the small steps he’s taken: He recently called his neighbor to schedule a get-together. He also started making small talk with a younger kid in his hip-hop class, but he’s been too afraid to ask for his phone number.

“What I want for him is a more normal life, to have at least one or two friends,” said Elias Cazares Sr.

As the teens hone their bonding skills, parents gather separately for their own lesson.

UCLA postdoctoral fellow Alex Gantman, “Dr. Alex,” runs the parent session. It is a chance for them to talk about their kids’ problems and progress and for Gantman to give pointers on helping the teens navigate their social surroundings.

One hard truth to face: There’s a 50-50 chance that a kid will be rejected by his peers, Gantman said, and it’s OK to let him know that.

Gantman points out that follow-up phone calls are critical in a budding friendship.

“Teens move on really quickly. Somebody else gets their attention and boom, they’re gone unless you really develop a strong friendship bond,” he said.

Gantman is working to expand the training to young autistic adults. They often struggle with dating skills, as portrayed in the summer romance movie, Adam, about a young man with Asperger’s who falls in love with his neighbor.

The PEERS program deals only with friendships, and teens must use the skills they learn in class in the real world. As part of their homework during the last month of the training, they had to play host to potential friends outside of the group.

Andrea invited over a fellow drama classmate with something in common. Both had a digestive problem that meant they couldn’t eat foods containing wheat. So the two girls were going to make a gluten-free pizza.

Before the guest arrived, Andrea, dressed in a denim skirt and blouse, went over the steps of being a good host. The door bell buzzed. Her ponytailed guest was five minutes early and wearing a shy smile.

After exchanging pleasantries, the two gathered in the kitchen. Andrea got off to a slow start, standing at times with her arms crossed in front while her mother chatted away.

Then, she remembered her hosting duties and asked if the classmate wanted to add the pizza toppings first.

The guest deferred. “You can go first.”

Andrea demonstrated: “So you put a little bit of sauce … and sprinkle on the cheese.”

“Perfect,” the classmate replied.

After pizza, Andrea, with some prompting from her mother, asked what to do next.

The guest was indifferent, so the two migrated to Andrea’s room to watch a movie. After they got bored, they headed to the living room to play video games, where Andrea got a chance to practice good sportsmanship.

Despite beating her guest in almost every round, Andrea threw out words of praise: “Good job” and “Come on. You can do this.”

“You did well,” Andrea said after winning the last round.

The two haven’t hung out since the culinary experience. It’s been an up-and-down time. But Andrea managed to have four get-togethers with a girl she met in chorus. And she’s felt those familiar teen pangs of loss when she was stood up by another girl.

The older, wiser Andrea shook it off. She focused on a new set of possible friends she met while awaiting her turn to dive at the local swimming pool.

After overhearing that her schoolmates were on Facebook, she persuaded her mother to let her create a profile. She sent out “a gazillion friend requests,” hoping a few will bite.

She has 33 friends and counting.


UCLA Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills

West Virginia Autism Training Center at Marshall University