WOMAN: Hi and welcome to Autism Talk TV.
[ Music ]
In this episode, we visit the PEERS Center in UCLA run by Dr. Liz Laugeson which focuses on social skills. And in this episode Alex is learning how to approach a circle of people and he will actually experiment and approach a real circle of people.
So, you can get to see his progress. Yeah.
ALEXANDER PLANK: People with autism generally try to make friends and sometimes they go about it the wrong way and frequently get frustrated by their lack of results. What are some ways you think that people on the autism spectrum can sort of make new friends, get into conversations, and really integrate in with a group?
DR. LIZ LAUGESON: There's not a simple answer. There's lots of different elements of how you make friends but one way that we meet new people and make potentially new friends is by entering conversations and not butting into conversations.
The reality is a lot of times as adults we give kids and even young adults the wrong advice essentially in this situation.
So what I want to do is kind of share with you what we call an ecologically valid skill.
An ecologically valid skill is a fancy term for what people who are socially accepted naturally do in these social situations. So that's what we want to teach, right? Not what we think that they should do, but what actually works.
So this is what people do when they're trying to meet new people. They'll first sort of listen to a conversation, kind of watch it from a distance, and try to figure out what they're talking about, right?
JULIE: Hey Sharon.
SHARON: Hey Julie, how's it going?
JULIE: It's good. How are you doing?
SHARON: It's good. Thanks.
JULIE: Is that your new laptop?
SHARON: Yeah, it's the new MacBook Air. I just got it.
JULIE: Oh my god, I love it.
SHARON: I know, I love it.
DR. LAUGESON: What do you think that most teens with autism do when they enter conversations?
ALEX: I would imagine most teens with autism when they enter a conversation will say something completely unrelated to the topic that's currently being discussed and probably is somewhat related to their special interests.
DR. LAUGESON: Exactly, you're absolutely right, and that's what our research is showing. They tend to be rather intrusive in conversations kind of butt in, and are off-topic and they are talking about something that's not related to what people are talking about.
How do you think they are going to be received when they do that?
ALEX: Usually, I would think that kids who enter into a conversation saying something unrelated would not be received in a good way. Usually with other kids either being puzzled or annoyed.
DR. LAUGESON: Yeah.
ALEX: Depending on how many times they've done it.
DR. LAUGESON: So we don't want to do that. Instead we want to use these ecologically valid skills where we first listen to the conversation, we figure out what they're talking about, once we've identified the topic we also want to make sure that we know something about the topic before we join the conversation and why would that be important?
ALEX: It would be important because if they're having a discussion you don't want to get into a situation where you don't even know what they're talking about and they get confused as to why you're even in the conversation.
DR. LAUGESON: Exactly. The important thing though while you're listening to this conversation, essentially you're eavesdropping, right?
But do you want to look like you're eavesdropping?
ALEX: No, you don't want to come off in a way that makes it seem like you've been eavesdropping. I've seen situations where a kid can get called out for eavesdropping.
DR. LAUGESON: Exactly, well, what do you think they were doing with their eye contact when they were called out for eavesdropping?
ALEX: I assume they were looking at the people.
DR. LAUGESON: Hmm-hm. They were probably staring at them. Right? That's what gives us away when we're eavesdropping. So instead of doing that we're just going to make, casual, periodic eye contact and we're going to look over occasionally just to show interest, but we're not going to stare at them. So a lot people will use a prop like they're using their iPhone or their BlackBerry or something like that, kind of looking through a book whatever is around.
Before you join, you're actually going to wait for something. What do you think you're waiting for?
ALEX: I would think that you would wait for a pause in the conversation.
DR. LAUGESON: Yeah, exactly. So why would you not want to just barge in when they're in the middle of talking?
ALEX: People don't like to get interrupted. You don't want to give a bad impression to the person who was talking.
DR. LAUGESON: Right, so we want to wait for just a little, brief pause in the conversation before we actually join. But one of the things that we have to remind the teens and young adults that I work with is that there is never a perfect pause. Because a lot of people will be waiting forever, waiting for this perfect pause.
But what you do is, you actually as you're waiting for that pause when you kind of find the pause, you're going to move a little bit closer so probably they'll at least look over at you. They'll notice you. And then that's your moment to join the conversation.
Now when we join the conversation, we've moved a little bit closer, there's hopefully a little pause, what do you think we're gonna want to say, like, how do we join that conversation?
ALEX: Well, usually I would think you would want to talk about whatever they're talking about and have something insightful that actually adds value to their conversation.
DR. LAUGESON: Exactly.
ALEX: You could give an opinion but unless your opinion is something that's worthwhile for them to listen to they're not going to care that much.
DR. LAUGESON: Exactly. So. I mean, it doesn't have to be a brilliant comment or anything like that but it does have to be on topic. You're right about that.
So you're going to either make a comment or ask a question that's on topic.
ALEX: That the new MacBook Air?
SHARON: Yeah, I just got it.
ALEX: Oh cool.
DR. LAUGESON: So what you do from there is you need to start assessing whether or not you are accepted into the conversation, right?
Those are the steps for joining the conversation, you know watching and listening from a distance, you're sort of making periodic eye contact, you wait for a little pause and you join by making a comment or asking questions on topic.
SHARON: Are you a Mac person?
ALEX: Oh yeah, definitely.
SHARON: Me too, me too.
ALEX: I have the- just got the new iPad.
SHARON: I want that one. I heard it was so great.
ALEX: It is, I really like it.
ALEX [to Dr. Laugeson]: So Liz, how do you know if you've been accepted into the group?
DR. LAUGESON: We know from the research that half the time that we try to join a conversation we're not necessarily going to be accepted and it's not a big deal, actually. It happens to everyone. But we need to be paying attention to whether or not we're accepted.
So, there are specific ways we can tell. For example, when you join a conversation what are people doing that are giving you the sense they are interested in you?
ALEX: Perhaps they're talking to you, looking at you, looking you in the eye, leaning in towards you when you're talking, pointing their bodies toward you.
DR. LAUGESON: Yeah, that's exactly right.
The reverse is true though when they're not interested in talking to us.
So if they're not interested, they're not engaging you in conversation, they're not looking at you or if they are looking at you, they're making a face or something like that or they do this interesting thing with their body where they turn away from you and the interesting thing about the body language is that I don't know if you've ever noticed when people talk in conversations with groups, they talk in circles.
ALEX: Yeah, everyone is standing in a circle usually or sitting around in a circle.
DR. LAUGESON: Yeah, they're all facing each other in a circle. What do you think they do with that circle when they want to talk to you? What do they do with it?
ALEX: They make it wider.
DR. LAUGESON: Yeah, they open the circle essentially.
What do they do with the circle when they don't want to talk to you?
ALEX: Maybe the people closest to you move sort of, away from you.
DR. LAUGESON: Yeah, they close the circle essentially. They kind of give you that cold shoulder. So these are some concrete, behavioral signs that we can use to assess whether or not we're accepted into the conversation.
Are they looking at us? Are they talking to us? Are they facing us?
ALEX: Why is it important to know if you're accepted or not?
DR. LAUGESON: Well because do you want to force someone to talk to you?
Let's imagine we join a conversation, they're not really interested in talking to us we know that happens about half the time. Do we want to continue to force them to talk to us?
ALEX: I guess not.
DR. LAUGESON: Probably not. What do you think they might think of us if we continue try to engage them when they've shown us they're not interested?
ALEX: I think they might find us annoying.
DR. LAUGESON: Yeah, they might find us annoying. So in those cases, we have to exit these conversations.
ALEX: Yeah, what's the best way to exit, just to generally, just walk away?
DR. LAUGESON: That's a really good question. So the typical advice is that you just walk away but the problem with just walking away is that a lot of the kids we work with they look like they're storming off. It's sort of, very obvious. You can see that, right?
So we teach them to slow it down a bit. They should begin by, sort of looking away.
Now what does it tell the people you're trying to talk to when you look away from them?
ALEX: That you're not as interested in the conversation.
DR. LAUGESON: That's right. So you kind of disengage in the conversation, your attention is focused elsewhere. Then you're going to kind of turn your body away in that same direction that you're looking. What does that tell them you're about to do?
ALEX: It tells them that you're about to leave.
DR. LAUGESON: Yeah, you're about to walk away and that's the third step. So we start by looking away, kind of turning away and casually walking away. It slows down the process and if we've done this right, the people we've been trying to engage none of them notice when we walk off.
ALEX: I've noticed some neuro-typical guys that I hang out with who are really good at social skills. They'll go into a conversation and they won't even move their body into the conversation. They'll look over their shoulder and start talking to the other group and it seems like there's way less rejection from that.
Is that wrong?
DR. LAUGESON: That's absolutely a strategy that you can use. We actually teach a lot of our kids in our program the idea of what we call 'gaze aversion'. We don't necessarily do that with our bodies but that's what we're talking about which is a very protective way of entering a conversation before you've really known if you've been accepted.
DR. LAUGESON: Because you're not 100% invested yet.
We kind of identified what the steps are, right? The first step for entering a conversation is that you're going to kind of listen to the conversation and watch it, and then you're waiting for something. What are you waiting for?
ALEX: Waiting for a pause.
DR. LAUGESON: Very good, and then you're going to join by doing what?
ALEX: Sort of going towards the group, moving in slowly maybe.
DR. LAUGESON: Uh-uh and how will you actually join the conversation?
ALEX: Once you're accepted as part of the circle, you say something that is related to the topic.
DR. LAUGESON: Yeah, you're going to want to comment or ask a question that's on topic and then you're going to be assessing whether or not you're accepted in the conversation.
ALEX: You make the comment before you determine whether or not you've been accepted.
DR. LAUGESON: Yeah, you always want to make the comment first.
[ Music ]