The number of high-functioning adolescents with ASD being brought into the mainstream school system is constantly increasing. While the mainstream placement of these students is due to relatively “normal” cognitive and language abilities, this evaluation does not take much into consideration regarding the social perils of middle and high schools that all adolescents, not only those diagnosed with ASD, face each day. While these mainstream adolescents are considered to be high-functioning on the autism spectrum, there is no assurance that they will similarly excel in various aspects of social interaction. However, newer research has shown that there might be a way to aid in the development of these skills, even in the midst of adolescence.
The UCLA Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills (PEERS) has been striving since 2006 to help assimilate adolescents with ASD into a “high-functioning” social life. This program has a heavy focus on social etiquette and rules, and teaches skills such as how to hold conversations with peers, or how to deflect bullying. Everything is taught from the perspective of an adolescent, rather than deriving from what adults consider to be appropriate teenage behavior, an effective angle in which the program takes pride.
While this program has proven to be effective throughout its duration, whether or not it is possible for long term social improvements has been questioned. “Social thinking” has been defined as dynamic and situational rather than something that is taught and replicated, and one’s ability to memorize social rules is not likely to be as effective as the usage of dynamic and synergistic processing in the overall social well-being of an individual (Winner, 2000). This program, however, goes beyond simple memorization, and expands to apply these skills to social situations throughout its duration, with the goal of continuing these applications throughout life.
According to an article in the ASHA Leader, treatment needs to “emphasize that people should consider what they expect others to do for them to keep them feeling calm and safe,” rather than teach the students to merely act the way others desire them to act. Building strong “social minds” should be the ultimate goal. This program appears to take this approach, with its focus on increasing the functionality of social thinking, therefore allowing the appropriate social behaviors to result. It isn’t simply memorizing rules, but rather promoting the awareness of social etiquette while providing underlying thought and reasoning. This is how the program has been able to obtain long-term effectiveness.
The UCLA PEERS program claims that this type of instruction proved to be immensely effective in the long run. When measured 14 weeks after completion of the 14-week program, parents and teachers noticed an increased frequency of interaction with peers, fewer behavioral issues, and a constantly improving regard for peer interaction. This may in part be due to the real-life application this program has offered, such as requirements to invite a friend over in a supervised environment, role playing, and in-class coaching. This is important in developing true social thinking, and helping the students understand why they should behave a certain way rather than simply memorizing what is and is not socially acceptable.
Adolescence is a key age, especially for individuals with social deficiencies due to ASD. If these challenges are not addressed, it is very possible that they will continue to follow the individual throughout adulthood, providing difficulties in transitioning into adult relationships, independent living, and employment. PEERS found that through intervening at this crucial age, it is possible for the high-functioning qualities of these mainstream students to extend into a successful social life.
University of California – Los Angeles. (2012, June 14). “Teaching Social Skills To Autistic Teens Proves Effective Over Long Term.” Medical News Today. Retrieved from
Crooke, Pamela J. & Winner, Michelle G. (2011, January 18). “Social Communication Strategies for Adolescents With Autism”
Winner, M. (2000). Inside Out: What makes a person with social cognitive deficits tick?, San Jose, CA: Think Social Publishing.