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Making Friends

This is a guest post by John Robison, author of Be Different and Look Me In The Eye.

I’ve just come from a morning at the Parents/Families/Community conference that’s associated with the big IMFAR autism science meeting. The conference moves around every year (some of the scientists have a reputation for getting wild) and this year we’re in San Diego. I flew in late last night just in time to sleep three hours and get up bright and early for the cab ride to the University of California at San Diego.

As long as I remain functional, I will be reporting on events here and at the main conference for the next three days. In addition, I hope to visit the San Diego container terminal and perhaps capture novel and exciting images of shipping and transportation.

As much I love ships and trains, I recognized my commitment to autism science and dutifully appeared where I was supposed to be, before I was supposed to be there. I was just in time for the keynote sessions, which I found totally fascinating.

The first talk I’d like to share with you concerned a program called PEERS, which was developed by Liz Laugeson, Psy.D. and Fred Frankel, Ph.D. of UCLA, and presented by Liz at this morning’s session.

PEERS is a science-based program that helps kids make friends. I say its science based because she actually tested and proved out the various concepts in PEERS through trials. By doing that, she was able to quantify what worked and what didn’t.

And that, folks, is a really important thing in the world of therapy.

Most therapists who work with folks on the spectrum do not have autism themselves. Therefore, things that may seem obvious to them may be totally obscure to the folks they are trying to help. Consider the example of a teen who has trouble getting into conversations with strangers.

A person who does not have autism instinctively reads the non verbal signals from people around him. He knows when to speak up and when to be quiet, and he knows how to join a conversation smoothly. At least, that’s the idea. A therapist who grew up with those skills naturally assumes everyone else is similar. That being the case, conversational skill is simply a matter of polishing one’s skill.

Unfortunately, for most autistic people, “polishing” does not work. We lack the ability to read other people, so “watching and slipping in smoothly” is not something we can do at all, without special training and a lot of practice. Yet that deficiency may not be at all apparent to a nypical therapist, even after he’s studied autism. Therefore, the advice that worked for him may totally fail for us, and he may not have any idea why, except to say “we just can’t get it.”

That’s where science and evidence-based therapy development come in. Researchers can try different ways of helping people solve problems, and then measure how well that training works in real life. By testing different strategies, it becomes possible to separate what works from what doesn’t, and to refine what works well into what works better. That is what Drs. Laugeson and Frankel have done with PEERS.

I could cite example after example from the book, but frankly, if you have a personal stake in helping people make friends, I urge you to buy the workbook. It’s written to do group therapy for high school students but it’s immediately obvious to me that the concepts can be used for self-study and even for Asperger adults. I mentioned that to Dr. Laugeson and she agreed but was quick to point out that the work had not been validated yet in adults.

So if you’re an adult Aspergian, or you know one… you can be among the first to try these ideas out. Let me know what you think.

The PEERS workbook is in many ways a clinical version of my “Be Different” book. In that book, I talk about the strategies I’ve used to find success, and how I made the most of my autistic gifts while minimizing my disability. What PEERS does is take those ideas to the next level.

I wrote about making friends from the perspective of my own success as a person with Asperger’s. PEERS approaches the same problem but from the perspective of many young people with autism, not just me.

PEERS was developed with funding from the National Institutes of Health. To me, it’s a great example of the kind of research we should encourage in the autism community. This is work that will be of tremendous benefit to many people growing up with autism now.

Over the next few days, I’ll be looking at all sorts of research. I’ll see work from biologists, geneticists, psychologists, neurologists, and psychiatrists. I’ll even be looking at studies from public health people and statisticians. Stay tuned as I report on highlights to come… after I walk over the check out the container terminal

You can find the book on amazon “Social Skills for Teenagers with Developmental and Autism Spectrum Disorders: The Peers Treatment Manual”


  1. Sarah
    May 12, 2011 at 7:53 am

    Looking forward to hearing more. :)

  2. jantel
    May 12, 2011 at 10:51 am

    Good morning John,

    Connecticut here. Really enjoyed your article on day one, looking forward to more! Just returned from vacation in San Diego 3 weeks ago. For my father’s 80th birthday my brother and I took my Dad to visit his ship “The Midway.” He served on this aircraft carrier from 1950-1954. Highly recomend you take a few minutes and visit this ship they turned into a museum. We loved seeing that the airplanes were made by hamilton standard located in Hartford, CT Have read your books and have a 21 year old son with Aspergers. Enjoy the sunny skies and warm weather in San Diego.

  3. Andrea Forringer
    May 12, 2011 at 11:30 pm

    Just ordered your book…Look Me In The Eye for my son. He is 14 and has been diagnosed with Autism just three months ago. He was referred for testing for Aspergers and qualified for the diagnosis of Autism. The more I read, the more I am learning that my Aspergian son has been misdiagnosed for years! I am frustrated that we missed out on all the “early intervention” strategies stressed by reports and articles. My son is an intelligent, gifted young man who struggles to fit into the world as we know it. He longs to be “normal” and doesn’t want to always make people mad at him. I am hoping this book will give him some encouragement and hope. Thank you for sharing your gift.
    Now this PEERS sounds exactly what my son needs. It is tough enough to be a teenager let alone a teenager with Aspergers. Anxious to learn more…

    • Maria
      May 24, 2011 at 12:11 pm

      Understand your situation, I have a boy who also diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome when he was 14years old, now he is 21. He is still unable to cope with the stress and he is still struggling with peoples. Not like America, the country I stay still do not have people that really care for older children with suffer from Aspergers Syndrome or Autism. I hope to get this book for him and I really hope this book will benefit him for long run. I never expect him nor want him to act like normal. All I wanted for him is for him to be happy, to be himself. He need not have to pretend to be normal, or even listen to what others have to say about him nor even bother the way they look at him. I feel that children suffer from Aspergers Syndrome are very sensitive because my son is one of them… Really, his happiness is all I hope an pray for the rest of my remaining life.

  1. May 13, 2011 at 12:35 pm
  2. May 17, 2011 at 9:42 am

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