April 27, 2009 / 2:24 PM / 10 years ago

Class helps autistic teens gain social skills

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - A class that teaches teenagers with autism the ins and outs of social etiquette appears to help them build social skills and stronger friendships, a small study finds.

A father tries to encourage his autistic son to attend a relay race during a therapy session at the Stars and Rain School for autistic children in Beijing March 23, 2009. REUTERS/Jason Lee

Researchers at the University of California Los Angeles found that a 12-week class they developed — dubbed PEERS — was able to boost the social skills of teenagers with milder forms of autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

ASD refers to a group of developmental disorders that hinder people’s ability to communicate and build relationships. The conditions range from severe cases of “classic” autism to Asperger’s syndrome — a disorder in which a person has normal intelligence and verbal skills, but difficulty socializing and understanding subtler forms of communication, like body language and vocal tone.

The current study, appearing in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, included 33 12- to 17-year-olds who had been diagnosed with either Asperger’s or “high-functioning” autism.

The teenagers attended 12 weekly classes where they learned skills such as how to pick the right peer group, join in conversations, be a good “host” for get-togethers and handle teasing or arguments.

Parents attended separate classes where they learned how to support their child’s social development.

“It’s hard enough to be a teenager,” lead researcher Elizabeth Laugeson said in a UCLA news release, “but it’s harder still for adolescents with autism because they typically lack the ability to pick up on all the social cues most of us take for granted — things like body language, hand gestures and facial expressions, along with speech inflections like warmth, sarcasm or hostility.”

The classes her team developed, she said, break social skills down into small steps, allowing teens with ASD to learn specific actions they can take in response to different social situations.

“So if they are teased, for example,” Laugeson explained, “we teach them to give a short comeback — like saying ‘whatever’ or ‘so what?’ They learn not to take the bait.”

At the end of the study, the researchers found, parents reported improvements in their children’s social skills, and the teenagers were having more interaction with their friends outside of school — including playing host to more get-togethers.

“For me,” Laugeson said, “the most important outcome of this research is that we’re able to have a direct impact on the quality of lives for teenagers with ASD. Helping them to develop meaningful relationships and feel more comfortable within their social world — these are essential ingredients to living a happy life, and what could be more important than that?”

SOURCE: Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, April 2009.

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