Helping Special-Needs Teens Transition Socially

By Christina Elston

special-needs PEERSA group of teens is talking. Your child wants to join the conversation, but isn’t sure how to go about it. What would you advise? If you’d tell your child to just walk up and introduce himself, you aren’t doing him any favors.

“It would look odd to just walk up to a random group and say hi,” says Elizabeth Laugeson, Psy.D., founder and director of the UCLA PEERS Clinic, a program that provides parent-assisted social-skills training for adolescents and young adults who are on the autism spectrum or have social impairments.

Most of us, faced with a conversation we wanted to join, would take an approach that can be broken down into three concrete steps.

  1. Casually and unobtrusively eavesdrop on the conversation (maybe using a prop like a cell phone so it isn’t clear we’re trying to overhear) to find out what is being discussed.
  2. Move closer to the group and wait for a pause in the conversation.
  3. Say something about the topic being discussed.

This is the type of tactic Laugeson teaches in her PEERS program, and it turns out the method produces lasting results. In a study published during the summer in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, Laugeson found that participants in her program maintained their social-skills improvements even four months after the program ended.

Most parents find the teen years challenging, but parents of kids with special needs are facing an added hurdle. While their kids might have been doing fine socially in elementary school – where most interactions are based around play and Mom and Dad are in charge of arranging play dates – things change as kids get older. “The social demands change as you transition to adolescence,” says Laugeson. “I think that’s probably why a lot of our kids struggle at this transition.” Suddenly, conversation takes center stage, and kids are in charge of arranging their own social calendars.

special needs PEERSBullying behaviors also change at this stage. While among elementary-age kids, most bullying takes the form of teasing, new types – including rumors, gossip and cyber bullying – emerge as kids enter adolescence. And while younger kids often can rely on adults to resolve social conflicts, teenagers are more often expected to resolve them on their own. These kinds of skills are also covered during PEERS workshops.

Behavioral coaches in the PEERS program – it stands for Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills – do more than just talk about the social skills they are teaching. “Kids also have to see what the skills look like,” Laugeson says. This takes the form of classroom demonstrations that cover both do’s and don’ts, and roleplay sessions so participants can practice. Parents, caregivers and adult siblings attend 90-minute weekly workshops that take place at the same time as the student workshops, and the two groups come together at the end of each session to review the day’s lesson and discuss homework assignments.

Practicing at home is key to the program’s success, says Laugeson, adding that her research has found that participants maintain their new skills even years later, because parents continue to reinforce them.

There is a 14-week PEERS program for teens, and a 16-week program for young adults. There is also a program for preschoolers. Enrollment is ongoing. Learn more at www.semel.ucla.edu/peers.

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