Friendship ‘boot camp’ helps autistic teens cope

A new 14-week “boot camp” is helping autistic teens recognize the social cues most of us take for granted every day, enabling them to make new friends and socialize at a reasonably functional level.

Thirteen-year-old Andrea Levy ticked off a mental list of rules to follow when her guest arrived: Greet her at the door. Introduce her to the family. Offer a cold drink.

Above all, make her feel welcome by letting her choose what to do.

“Do you want to make pizza now, or do you want to make it later?” the lanky, raven-haired teen rehearsed in the kitchen, as her mother spread out dough and toppings.

This was a pivotal moment for Andrea, a girl who invited just one acquaintance to her bat mitzvah.

Andrea has autism, and socializing doesn’t come naturally. For the past several weeks, she’s gone to classes that teach the delicate ins and outs of making friends–the Emily Post rules of etiquette for autistic teens.

For Andrea, this pizza date is the ultimate test.

The bell rings. The door opens. Can she remember what she needs to do?
More important, will she make a friend?

Even for socially adept kids, the teen years, full of angst and peer pressure, can be a challenge. It’s an especially difficult time for kids with autism spectrum disorders, a catchall term for a range of poorly understood brain conditions–from the milder Asperger’s syndrome to more severe autism marked by lack of eye contact, poor communication, and repetitive behavior such as head-banging.

An estimated 1 in 150 American children has some form of autism. There’s no known cure. Some research suggests autistic kids who get help early can overcome some of their deficits. But the social skills they learn as a toddler might not be so useful to a teen.

“A lot of our kids need a tune-up. They need new skills to help them survive in their new social world,” said clinical psychologist Elizabeth Laugeson of the University of California, Los Angeles, who runs a three-and-a-half-month friendship program for high-functioning autistic teens like Andrea.

Growing up, Andrea hardly had friends at all. They either moved away or grew tired by her inability to emotionally connect.

When she was 18 months old, her parents noticed something was amiss. Instead of babbling, she would cry or scream to get attention. She had no desire to play, even with her older brother.

Some doctors said not to worry; others thought she had a speech impairment.

None of the answers made sense to Andrea’s parents until two medical experts, including a pediatrician who specialized in developmental disorders, diagnosed her as autistic.

The family soon enrolled Andrea in special play therapy.

“We try and help her make friends, but she’s always a step behind her peers,” said her mother, Gina Levy.

In some respects, Andrea is a typical teenage girl who is crazed about celebrity gossip magazines, romance novels, drama, and chorus. But she can be withdrawn and doesn’t always get the subtleties of body language and other nonverbal signs.

Whenever she gets stuck in a conversation, she tends to stare, making people around her uncomfortable. She doesn’t mean to be impolite–it’s just her way of watching and learning.