Imagine if someone jumped into your conversation at a party without an introduction, interrupting you mid-sentence.
That might strike you as odd or rude. But when we give someone the simple advice to “just go up and introduce yourself,” we’re skipping many of the nonverbal steps important to making a good impression.
For most, connecting with other people relies on intuition. However, social interactions of all sorts — from just saying “hello” to a new acquaintance to interviewing for a new job — can be challenging. For people with autism, it can be even more difficult to know how to strike up that first conversation.
That’s why UCLA psychologist Dr. Elizabeth Laugeson made it her mission to help.
Through her work at the Semel Institute and her work with Fred Frankel in 2005, she created a program that helps young adults with social challenges, such as those on the autism spectrum, make and keep friends by breaking down social interactions into easy-to-follow steps.
This program, called the Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills (PEERS), teaches them how to listen, interact, and communicate with others.
“We want to teach to the way that [people with autism] think. What works? Concrete rules and steps,” Laugeson explains.
Most people pick up on social cues, like body language and facial expressions, quite naturally. But many people with autism struggle with abstract thinking. Concrete communication works best for many, according to the Indiana Research Center for Autism.
That’s why, Laugeson explains, the first step is actually about learning to listen before jumping in.
“The first step is that you’d watch the conversation and kind of listen to the conversation,” she explains.
Some of us might use a prop, like a cellphone, to look distracted while listening to a conversation we’re thinking about joining. We’ll spend this time eavesdropping for a common interest.
Next, we might move closer to the conversation, waiting for a pause to jump in with something on topic. Of course, this process involves assessing whether the person or group is interested in talking to us.
Introductions usually don’t come until mid-conversation, Laugeson says. This is why “just go up and say hello” may not the best advice, especially for people who struggle to pick up on subtle cues.
There are social nuances that go beyond first interactions, too, and the curriculum at PEERS addresses many of them.
UCLA PEERS also teaches students how to deal with conflict and bullying, for example.
Individuals with autism are especially vulnerable to bullying. The Interactive Autism Network found in a study that 63% of children ages 6 to 15 with autism spectrum disorder have experienced bullying.
This is another area where neurotypical people may give ineffective advice. People usually suggest dealing with teasing in one of three ways: ignore the bully, walk away, or tell an adult. But these strategies don’t always work, Laugeson says.
“These responses often make it worse for the victim and not better,” she explains.
During a bullying situation, a neurotypical person will usually respond with a short, dismissive comeback. A casual “whatever” or “Is that supposed to be funny?” can make the aggressor’s comments seem boring.
This is a great way to show the ability to stand up for one’s self while diffusing the situation and avoiding more confrontation. Laugeson teaches this tactic in PEERS to her students, helping them deal with teasing in a way others might naturally react.
These are just a few ways that PEERS helps students who struggle socially.
Since 2005, PEERS has expanded from UCLA to locations across the country and throughout the world.
The PEERS method can also help preschoolers, adolescents, and young adults with ADHD, anxiety, depression, and other socio-emotional problems too.
And it’s more accessible than ever, thanks to her book, “The Science of Making Friends,” and an app called FriendMaker, which acts as a virtual coach for social situations and includes role-playing exercises for making and keeping friends.
Friendship is a critical part of mental health, though it’s easy to take this for granted.
This is why programs like UCLA PEERS are so important, particularly for individuals who can’t easily navigate social situations.
Laugeson shared a story of a student who had been in and out of psychiatric units with a long history of mental health issues. The young man had tried many medications by the time he joined PEERS.
“This was a kid who had been highly medicated over the years. He came to me at graduation and he told me friendship was the best medicine for him,” Laugeson recounted. “It absolutely can change a life to have a friend.”
PEERS has helped numerous students like him, not only in making friends, but in attending college, getting jobs, and even embarking on romantic relationships.
For the past 12 years, the skills taught at PEERS have helped improve the lives of thousands of people all over the world. For a skill set that’s so rarely taught, it’s transformative to make the art of friendship a little more accessible for those who need it.