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Lessons in getting along

Tuesday, May 4th, 2010



Lots of teens stumble while trying to strike that balance between fitting in and being yourself. Add in the difficulties of autism, and it’s that much harder. WHYY reports on a study testing whether kids with autism can practice their way into friendship.

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Students watch video clips while psychiatrist Michael Murray lectures. It’s like getting a lesson in surviving a high school cafeteria.

Murray: Understanding appropriate practical jokes, really, really basic things like: Make eye contact … to some of the more subtle things like, this is how you know a girl might be interested in you.

This group is all boys. All have a form of “high-functioning” autism.

They’re like most high school students, they slouch, wear oversized sweatshirts and have tiny MP3 players, but they don’t seem to have that nonchalance other teens have perfected.

Sixteen-year-old Alan Sebastian …

Sebastian:I would always get that wrong, I would always either stare at that person too long or not look at them long enough. The conversation usually trails off and they usually find their way out into something else.

Dr. Murray gave Alan a tip on maintaining eye contact.

Sebastian: There’s like this five-second rule, I’ve been practicing it at school and it really helps a lot, like, people don’t back away as much.

The study is based at Penn State Hershey Medical Center.

Murray says Alan’s experience is pretty typical of teens who have some traits of autism as well as average language and learning abilities.

Murray: They dominate conversations; they’ll talk about things that are only of interest to them. They don’t read facial expressions right, they don’t read social cues right.

Murray says adults usually find safe topics for casual conversation: sports, the movies, the weather. But, for teens, first meetings can be less predictable.

Let’s say you’re really into the boy band The Jonas Brothers.

Murray: Some 14-year-olds it’s OK to talk about that. Other 14-year-olds it would be deadly to talk about The Jonas Brothers and most 14-year-olds understand that and know how to work that out. The guys that we see don’t know how to do that.

Teaching social skills isn’t new, but Murray says in past studies lessons from the clinic haven’t translated very well to the school hallway. His study gives teens a chance to try out what they just learned.

Students who have autism are partnered with teens who don’t. Michael Murray huddles with the volunteers to explain their assignment.

Murray: So they’re going to come in and have a conversation with you.

Volunteer: ‘OK.’

Murray: And your job is to be friendly, but not too helpful. Talk with them and respond to their questions, and be friendly but don’t be the one who’s keeping the conversation going.

The research team records the teen interactions; afterward, Dr. Murray reviews the video and narrates the play-by-play with Alan.

Murray: You guys started off really well: ‘Oh, I like computers, I like computers.’ Right? Nice eye contact, you know, how you are leaning in here, and then, you are kind of getting into more technical speak about it. I think you might be losing him, little bit.

Sebastian: Uh, huh.

Murray: Do you kind of see that? Sebastian: Yeah …

Autism and its differences have become more accepted. Still, Murray says teens as a whole aren’t particularly forgiving of social mistakes. Awkward students are boxed out and can become isolated quickly.

Murray: Social skills are the factor which leads to some really, really bright people being unemployed, or underemployed. There’s high rates of depression, high rates of failed marriages. These are really important things to address.

It will be months before researchers know if adding typical teens to the mix helps lessons in social skills stick.


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