Building and maintaining friendships can prove difficult for teenagers diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Basic social cues are often lost in translation. National Friendship Day is a time to shed light on the ways in which autistic children and teenagers can develop communication skills and build healthy relationships.
In 2009, the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) conducted communication and socializing classes for autistic teenagers and measured the results. These classes, called Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills (PEERS), armed teenagers with social skills through role-playing exercises and setting goals outside of class. Parents of participants were required to take different classes at the same time as a means of empowering them to help their children implement what they learned in PEERS classes. The study found that these classes helped teens improve their overall communication skills and social interactions with peers (Wheeler, 2009).
Elizabeth Laugeson, UCLA clinical director of psychiatry, notes how important PEERS classes and similar educational tools can be for children with autism. She explains, “It’s hard enough to be a teenager, 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, [such as] things like body language, hand gestures and facial expressions, along with speech inflections like warmth, sarcasm or hostility.” These social problems do not dissipate over time, as Laugeson continues, “Lack of these basic social skills may lead to rejection, isolation or bullying from their peers. And sadly, that isolation can carry into their adult life.”
The Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders, located in Santa Ana, California, is hosting arts and crafts classes through the end of August for children diagnosed with autism or alternative neurodevelopmental conditions, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and Down syndrome. These classes help students express themselves creatively while forming a community. Jennifer Smith, the center’s senior director of development, states, “We want families to know that our center is a safe environment for their children. They can come in and know that their child is going to be welcomed with open arms.” (Moreno, 2015)
Specialists recommend that high-functioning autistic children be placed in mainstream schools and social settings, as opposed to specialized facilities. Individuals with autism typically mirror behaviors of those around them, meaning that they often replicate “normal” social interactions and relationships when surrounded by them. It is also advised that peers and friends be told that the individual has autism, since children are naturally curious and typically eager to learn more about the disorder (Woliver, 2010).
If you or your child is struggling bullying or any mental health issues related to a neurodevelopmental disorder, help is available. Call the 24/7 California Mental Health Helpline at 855-559-3923 to speak with a professional and be connected with a facility in your area.