Dr. Liz Laugeson on How to Make Friends

I’ve just come from a morning at the Parents/Families/Community conference that’s associated with the big IMFAR autism science meeting.  The conference moves around every year (some of the scientists have a reputation for getting wild) and this year we’re in San Diego.  I flew in late last night just in time to sleep three hours and get up bright and early for the cab ride to the University of California at San Diego.

As long as I remain functional, I will be reporting on events here and at the main conference for the next three days.  In addition, I hope to visit the San Diego container terminal and perhaps capture novel and exciting images of shipping and transportation.

As much I love ships and trains, I recognized my commitment to autism science and dutifully appeared where I was supposed to be, before I was supposed to be there.  I was just in time for the keynote sessions, which I found totally fascinating.

The first talk I’d like to share with you concerned a program called PEERS, which was developed by Liz Laugeson and Fred Frankel of UCLA, and presented by Liz at this morning’s session.

PEERS is a science-based program that helps kids make friends.  I say its science based because she actually tested and proved out the various concepts in PEERS through trials.  By doing that, she was able to quantify what worked and what didn’t.

And that, folks, is a really important thing in the world of therapy.

Most therapists who work with folks on the spectrum do not have autism themselves.  Therefore, things that may seem obvious to them may be totally obscure to the folks they are trying to help.  Consider the example of a teen who has trouble getting into conversations with strangers.

A person who does not have autism instinctively reads the non verbal signals from people around him.  He knows when to speak up and when to be quiet, and he knows how to join a conversation smoothly.  At least, that’s the idea.  A therapist who grew up with those skills naturally assumes everyone else is similar.  That being the case, conversational skill is simply a matter of polishing one’s skill.

Unfortunately, for most autistic people, “polishing” does not work.  We lack the ability to read other people, so “watching and slipping in smoothly” is not something we can do at all, without special training and a lot of practice.  Yet that deficiency may not be at all apparent to a nypical therapist, even after he’s studied autism.  Therefore, the advice that worked for him may totally fail for us, and he may not have any idea why, except to say “we just can’t get it.” 

That’s where science and evidence-based therapy development come in.  Researchers can try different ways of helping people solve problems, and them measure how well that training works in real life.  By testing different strategies, it becomes possible to separate what works from what doesn’t, and to refine what works well into what works better.  That is what Drs Laugeson and Frankel have done with PEERS.

I could cite example after example from the book, but frankly, if you have a personal stake in helping people make friends, I urge you to buy the workbook.  It’s written to do group therapy for high school students but it’s immediately obvious to me that the concepts can be used for self-study and even  for Asperger adults.  I mentioned that to Dr. Laugeson and she agreed but was quick to point out that the work had not been validated yet in adults.

So if you’re an adult Aspergian, or you know one . . .you can be among the first to try these ideas out.  Let me know what you think.

The PEERS workbook is in many ways a clinical version of my Be Different book.  In that book, I talk about the strategies I’ve used to find success, and how I made the most of my autistic gifts while minimizing my disability.  What PEERS does is take those ideas to the next level.

I wrote about making friends from the perspective of my own success as a person with Asperger’s.  PEERS approaches the same problem but from the perspective of many young people with autism, not just me.

PEERS was developed with funding from the National Institutes of Health.  To me, it’s a great example of the kind of research we should encourage in the autism community.  This is work that will be of tremendous benefit to many people growing up with autism now. 

Over the next few days, I’ll be looking at all sorts of research.   I’ll see work from biologists, geneticists, psychologists, neurologists, and psychiatrists.  I’ll even be looking at studies from public health people and statisticians.  Stay tuned as I report on highlights to come . . . after I visit the Container Terminal

John Elder Robison


AnnMarie said…
Thank you! Looking forward to hearing more from you through out the conference! Thanks again for all you do!
Kimberly said…
That's great! I got the opportunity to hear Fred Frankel several years ago speak about PEERS at a conference. The other speakers (a pediatric specialist and a politician/dad) were good, but as a mom of an autistic son, PEERS had the information I found most helpful. Research and legislation are important, but my son being able to interact appropriately with kids at school is a daily necessity. His speech therapists kept insisting he maintain eye contact when having a conversation, but the examples from PEERS research showed that nypical boys DON'T really do that, so we were training him to make other boys very uncomfortable by focusing on their eyeballs during a conversation. Thanks for the updates. Have enjoyed your books. You even got me reading "Varmit"'s stuff. Love it!
M said…
a bigger problem with making friends is that 99.9% of people suck. i realized, when i was a teen, that friendships were scarce...i had trouble finding them...and the ones i had were unfulfilling. eventually i developed a comfort level blaming others. most people are just selfish and petty, way too shallow.

anyway. my self-help book is going to sound very, very different from most of what's out there. "People Suck: a guide to better hating."

or something like that.
As an adult I have NO friends, literally. I often read about other adults with ASD (supposedly) who have many friends and are even married! (I will probably never get married unless some random person asks me to marry him and I say yes, which will probably never happen).

In grade school I had "relationships" with other children though I often remember sitting alone. I remember being in a group just to "be there" and not talking, just standing there. I also remember "drifting" from person to person. Of course, in grade school, "play dates" and similar are usually set up by parents, so if a person had a moderate/mild form of HFA/AS it would be more difficult to pick up, especially in a female.

In middle school I didn't have a "friend" for over a year. I sat with a "group" but wasn't "among" the group, if that makes sense. After about a year I made a friend and was the "oddball" in the group. Then I drifted to another group later and my "friend" became angry and I couldn't understand why she wouldn't talk to me. I didn't really miss the friendship because I was really just friends with this one person and she had many other friends in the "group."

Had no friends in HS and have none as an adult. Adult relationships are much more complex than middle school and I have no idea how they work. I would like to have a girlfriend (since I'm gay) but I have NO idea how to do that or how to sustain one.

Relationship problems like these are one reason why college/work is so difficult because I have NO IDEA how human relationships work.

The only person I talk to is my father, literally.

I remember around age 7/8 reading a book about "How to Make Friends" that I got from the library. So, relationship problems evident around that age.

I also remember my mother/father telling me that as a toddler when they called my name I wouldn't respond, so relationship problems evident in early childhood.
dviraciai said…
This was really worth reading.

On this subject I also recommend reading this article: http://www.howdoimakefriends.com

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