The science of making friends How an innovative program for teenagers with autism is changing lives — and the brain
By Nicole Sweeney Etter Fifteen-year-old Nick Sansone, who has autism, has always struggled to make and keep friends. But after the 14-week PEERS program at Marquette, the Highland, Ind., teen started high school with a new set of tools: how to start a conversation. How to exit gracefully when it’s not going well. How to find his niche. “Before I started doing this group, I didn’t have any friends and wasn’t involved with anybody or anything at my school. But now, I have switched schools and have been talking to kids there and slowly building friendships,” says Nick, who is now active in his school’s book club, film society and theatre program, even landing a small role in It’s a Wonderful Life. Until now, most autism research has focused on what children with autism can’t do. Dr. Amy Van Hecke, assistant professor of psychology at Marquette, is setting out to show what autistic kids can do. First developed at UCLA, the research-based PEERS (Program for the Enrichment and Education of Relational Skills) teaches autistic teens how to make friends. Marquette’s PEERS program, the only one in the Midwest, has quickly become a sought-after resource.
Illustration by Stephanie Dalton Cowan Marquette University