Buddy System Classes on Social Skills Helpautistic Kids Build Relationships

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), August 31, 2009 | Go to article overview

Buddy System Classes on Social Skills Helpautistic Kids Build Relationships


Byline: Alicia Chang Associated Press

Thirteen-year-old Andrea Levy ticked off a mental list of rules to follow when her guest arrived: Greet her at the door. Introduce her to the family. Offer a cold drink.

Above all, make her feel welcome by letting her choose what to do.

"Do you want to make pizza now or do you want to make it later?" the lanky, raven-haired teen rehearsed in the kitchen, as her mother spread out dough and toppings.

This was a pivotal moment for Andrea, a girl who invited just one acquaintance to her bat mitzvah.

Andrea has autism, and socializing doesnAEt come naturally. For the past several weeks, sheAEs gone to classes that teach the delicate ins and outs of making friends u an Emily Post rules of etiquette for autistic teens.

For Andrea, this pizza date is the ultimate test.

The bell rings. The door opens. Can she remember what she needs to do?

More important, will she make a friend?

Even for socially adept kids, the teen years, full of angst and peer pressure, can be a challenge. ItAEs an especially difficult time for kids with autism spectrum disorders, a catchall term for a range of poorly understood brain conditions u from the milder AspergerAEs syndrome to more severe autism marked by lack of eye contact, poor communication and repetitive behavior such as headbanging.

An estimated 1 in 150 American children has some form of autism. ThereAEs no known cure. Some research suggests autistic kids who get help early can overcome some of their deficits. But the social skills they learn as a toddler may not be so useful to a teen.

"A lot of our kids need a tuneup. They need new skills to help them survive in their new social world," said clinical psychologist Elizabeth Laugeson of the University of California, Los Angeles, who runs a 31/2-month friendship program for high-functioning autistic teens like Andrea.

Growing up, Andrea hardly had friends at all. They either moved away or grew tired of her inability to emotionally connect.

When she was 18 months old, her parents noticed something was amiss. Instead of babbling, she would cry or scream to get attention. She had no desire to play, even with her older brother.

Some doctors said not to worry; others thought she had a speech impairment.

None of the answers made sense to AndreaAEs parents until two medical experts, including a pediatrician who specialized in developmental disorders, diagnosed her as autistic.

The family soon enrolled Andrea in special play therapy.

"We try to help her make friends, but sheAEs always a step behind her peers," said her mother, Gina Levy.

In some respects, Andrea is a typical teenage girl who is

crazed about celebrity gossip magazines, romance novels, drama and chorus. But she can be withdrawn and doesnAEt always get the subtleties of body language and other nonverbal signs.

Whenever she gets stuck in a conversation, she tends to stare, making people around her uncomfortable. She doesnAEt mean to be impolite u itAEs just her way of watching and learning.

"I know IAEm weird and I know IAEm not normal," said Andrea, who looks like a young Anne Hathaway with braces. "IAEve always known IAEm not normal."

Andrea found company from nine other high-functioning autistic teens who enrolled in a 14-week friendship boot camp earlier this year. More than 100 teens have graduated from the UCLA Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills, or PEERS for short, which costs $100 a session and is covered by many insurers.

Unlike other autism interventions, parents also must participate. They learn to become social coaches for their children so that their new skills can be retained when the program is over.

Every week, Laugeson, a peppy clinical psychologist known as "Dr. Liz," leads the students through a maze of social survival skills: how to have a two-way conversation, how to trade information to find common interests, how to gracefully enter a conversation and how to be a good host. …

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