Pepperdine Voice Magazine
Dr. Elizabeth Laugeson Equips Autistic Teens with Social Survival Skills.
by Audra Quinn
"Sharing too much personal information can make others uncomfortable." "Maintain about an arm's length of distance for personal space." "Make sure the conversation is not too one-sided." "Build on common interests."
This is week two in class with Dr. Elizabeth Laugeson (MA '00, PsyD '04) in the Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills, better known as PEERS. For many people these skills are second nature, but PEERS is designed for teens with autism and Asperger's disorder, many of whom would consider learning Latin a less daunting task than deciphering the social codes of their classmates.
"Autism affects one in 150 people in the United States and that's a really staggering amount of people," says Laugeson, who cofounded PEERS with her colleague Fred Frankel at the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. "A lot of kids come into our program feeling socially anxious or socially isolated. This is a very pragmatic approach to improving their quality of life."
After earning her master's degree in psychology from the Pepperdine Graduate School of Education and Psychology in 2004, Laugeson was awarded a three-year postdoctoral research fellowship at UCLA. There she worked on the research that would later become PEERS.
"I think that there's a lot of emphasis right now in the research on finding the cause and the cure for autism, but if you're the parent of a child with autism, you want to know what you can do for your child now. There's been this tremendous gap in the research, particularly for teenagers with autism, so we really sought to fill that gap by developing the PEERS program," she says.
The program runs for 14 weeks during which separate parent and teen sessions are held concurrently. At each group session, teens are taught important social skills and are given the opportunity to practice these skills during activities and games. Parents are taught how to assist their teens in making and keeping friends by providing feedback through weekly socialization homework assignments. In week two, for instance, after learning some of the keys to good conversation, each student was assigned another classmate to call on the phone.
Laugeson says that the parent-assistance aspect of the program is part of what makes it so effective. "By including parents we increase the chances that kids will actually practice these new skills," she says. "When they're left to their own devices, you don't know that they're really going to practice the skills, because they can be rather anxiety-provoking situations."
Stacy Yeany enrolled her 17-year-old son Hayden in PEERS because, though he has exceptional academic abilities, he struggled terribly in social situations. "We knew it was affecting his psyche because he's a human being, and we knew that he was going to be happier when he was connecting with the world and feeling like he fit in," she explains.
After one week, Stacy watched in amazement as Hayden talked on the phone to his PEERS classmate for 25 minutes. "I can tell it's working already," she says, the brightness of her smile rivaled only by her son's.
"It's fun learning about new social skills and talking to other kids," Hayden adds. "I'm starting to finally learn how to talk to my peers, whereas before I could only talk to adults."
As a child, Laugeson moved frequently with her family and had to adapt quickly to new social circumstances. "I went to many, many different schools and had to learn very quickly how to make friends," she remembers. "I see the benefit of knowing how to use appropriate social skills and having close friends. I love that I am able to help build bridges for these kids and to give them the skills and tools that they need to succeed in their lives."
Last year Laugeson and Frankel put their program to the test with their own peers, presenting the cutting-edge program for the first time at the International Meeting for Autism Research alongside the world's most groundbreaking scholars in the field.
In keeping with the goals of the PEERS program, they found that they fit right in. "The level of excitement and enthusiasm for what we were doing was just palpable. It really was an eye-opener," Laugeson recalls. "We've always felt that what we were doing was very important, but to have our colleagues and members of the autism community see that was very exciting for us and very validating."
Laugeson is unsure when a cure for autism will be found, but in the meantime she's hopeful that more and more teenagers with autism will be able to benefit from the PEERS program. "We're just so eager to disseminate this research to the larger community and make sure that kids all around the country and even the world have access to this intervention. It's effective in improving these teens' social functioning. We know now that it actually works."