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March 30th, 2017

How to get a date—For young adults with autism, it’s not so easy

By Mark Wheeler

For children with autism spectrum disorder, understanding emotions is a very difficult task. These children typically have trouble recognizing emotions, particularly social emotions conveyed through facial expressions — a frown, a smirk or a smile. This can hamper the child’s ability to communicate and socialize, sometimes leading to social isolation.

And as the child with autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, becomes a young adult, the impact of these social difficulties can make it more difficult to find friendships—and romance.

“Many people tend to think of autism as a childhood disorder,” says Elizabeth Laugeson, a UCLA assistant clinical professor of psychiatry and autism expert. “It’s as if we’ve forgotten these children grow up to be adults with the same unique challenges that very often affect their ability to be gainfully employed or establish meaningful friendships and romantic relationships.”

While we’ve all suffered from social angst—maybe being tongue-tied on a date, or not quite fitting in at a party or social gathering--eventually we learn how to engage, talk, and blend in.

But for a young adult with autism, it goes something like this, says Laugeson. “Imagine a young man who, say, is interested in the barista at the local Starbucks. How will he show his romantic interest? He may sit at a table for hours and just stare at the person continuously. He means no harm, of course, just the opposite, but what will people, and the poor barista, think? They’ll think it’s creepy. He may even get in trouble for the awkward gesture.”

“Most of us know the social world lacks a "manual," and most of us learn through trial and error over time how to adapt to various social situations,” she says. “But the rules governing the social world are complex, subtle and implicit, and adults on the autism spectrum miss those cues.”

For the guy who stares too long, Laugeson has an antidote: teach him, literally, how to flirt with his eyes. In the training she does with young adults with ASD, Laugeson would teach the guy in much detail how to flirt by using an initial brief glance, brief eye contact, slight smile (show no teeth!), look away, and repeat—a series of actions that naturally convey romantic interest, but do not always come naturally to people with autism.

Laugeson is the founder and co-developer of The UCLA PEERS Clinic (Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills), the only research-supported treatment program for improving social skills for children and young adults with autism.

For the young adults, the classes help improve conversation skills, how to use humor and social media, find friends and organize social gatherings, and handle conflict and rejection.

Laugeson has published several books, including PEERS® for Young Adults, which is based on the success of these programs. The book is a step-by-step manual geared for mental health professionals and educators to use in helping adults with autism navigate through social interactions.

The book gets down to specifics. How to ask someone on a date. How to let someone know you’re interested. How to plan a date using the five “W’s”—who will be there, what you plan to do, when, where, and how you will make it happen. (Okay, four W’s and an H.) Other sessions are similar to what is taught in the actual classes, such as how to use humor or interact on social media.

“We’ve shown through our research that social skills can be learned, in much the same way people can learn a foreign language,” says Laugeson. “In fact,” she laughs, “I can’t tell you the number of people who don’t have autism who’ve said they wished they had such a manual!”

Indeed, for people who would just like to be more socially adept, Laugeson published an earlier book, The Science of Making Friends, to teach socially challenged teens and adults the science behind making and keeping friends. More information on the PEERS® program can be found at https://www.semel.ucla.edu/peers.

Tags: ASD, autism, autism expert, autism spectrum disorders, conversation skills, Elizabeth Laugeson, News & Insights, PEERS for Young Adults, psychiatry, social skills, The Science of Makinf Friends, UCLA PEERS clinic, UCLA Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills, youg adults with autism

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