For adults with autism, learning social skills – and finding love

Book for educators aims to help those with the disorder establish meaningful friendships and romantic relationships

A new book by a UCLA professor addresses a situation most of us have endured at some point in our lives — social awkwardness. Perhaps it was first-date angst, or a party where everybody seems to know everybody else, except you. Or a work conference you’ve come to late where everybody is already chatting away.

For most of us it’s a brief, uncomfortable moment that passes. For adults with autism, it’s an enduring part of their lives. That’s the group Elizabeth Laugeson, a UCLA assistant clinical professor of psychiatry, aims to help. Laugeson is the co-founder and developer of the UCLA PEERS Clinic, or Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills, the only research-supported treatment programs for improving social skills for preschoolers, adolescents and young adults with autism. Her book, “PEERS for Young Adults,” is based on the success of that program.

“Autism is generally associated with children, but the disorder doesn’t go away with age,” Laugeson said. “It’s a lifelong disorder.” She cites a recent CNN story about a woman diagnosed with autism at the age of 47, who in hindsight now recognizes how the disorder shaped her whole life.

Autism is characterized by challenges with social skills and communication, Laugeson said. “For a child, that makes it hard to fit in, to make friends and ‘belong,’” she said. “The same holds true for an adult with autism, although it’s not just making friends, but finding and keeping a job, dating and maintaining long-term romantic relationships.”

The book is geared for mental health professionals and educators to use in helping adults with autism, Laugeson said, and addresses a common complaint. “The social world lacks a ‘manual,’ and most of us learn through trial and error over time how to adapt to various social situations,” she said.

But the rules governing that world are complex, subtle and implicit, and are often missed by autistic adults. “PEERS for Young Adults” describes the steps necessary for autistic adults to make and keep friends and develop romantic relationships. Her book is a step-by-step manual for how to navigate through various social interactions. It contains 16 sessions, including homework assignments and practice/rehearsal tips. It also requires participation by a coach — a caregiver, friend, sibling or parent — who acts as a social coach in the real world.

“Having a coach reinforces what the book teaches,” Laugeson said.

The book gets down to specifics. How do you ask someone on a date? How do you let someone know you’re interested? How do you carefully plan a date — who will be there, what you plan to do, when, where and how you will make it happen.

For example, the book covers how to flirt with your eyes.

“People who have trouble with social communication misunderstand. They’ll be attracted to someone and instead of glancing at them and making brief eye contact, they’ll stare, hard, with a big grin on their face,” Laugeson said. “It’s unintentional, of course, but can be seen as creepy.”

The book teaches them, literally, the proper steps to take — a brief glance, initial eye contact, slight smile (no teeth!), look away, repeat.

Brief role-playing videos demonstrate the correct and incorrect ways to “flirt with the eyes”:

Good example of flirting with the eyes.

Bad example of flirting with the eyes.

The book is an outgrowth of the PEERS program, which teaches relational skills backed by peer-reviewed research. It uses the same concrete rules and steps as taught in the book. It is one of the few social skills interventions to be adopted by practitioners worldwide — it’s now taught in more than 25 countries, while the PEERS manual has been translated into more than a dozen languages.

The PEERS for Adolescents program is geared for teenagers with autism and other social challenges, and involves group classes, role-playing demonstrations, rehearsals to practice newly learned social skills and homework assignments to make sure the skills are working for adults.

“This book is intended as a practical, hands-on manual. We’ve shown through our research that social skills can be learned, in much the same way people can learn a foreign language,” Laugeson said. “PEERS for Young Adults” is published by academic publisher Routledge. 

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Mark Wheeler, UCLA Health
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