There’s a surprising science behind making friends, and this psychologist is teaching it.

Imagine if someone jumped into your conversation at a party without an introduction, interrupting you mid-sentence.

That might strike you as odd or rude. But when we give someone the simple advice to "just go up and introduce yourself," we're skipping many of the nonverbal steps important to making a good impression.

For most, connecting with other people relies on intuition. However, social interactions of all sorts — from just saying "hello" to a new acquaintance to interviewing for a new job — can be challenging. For people with autism, it can be even more difficult to know how to strike up that first conversation.


Image via iStock.

That’s why UCLA psychologist Dr. Elizabeth Laugeson made it her mission to help.

Through her work at the Semel Institute and her work with Fred Frankel in 2005, she created a program that helps young adults with social challenges, such as those on the autism spectrum, make and keep friends by breaking down social interactions into easy-to-follow steps.

This program, called the Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills (PEERS), teaches them how to listen, interact, and communicate with others.  

Photo from UCLA PEERS via AP.

"We want to teach to the way that [people with autism] think. What works? Concrete rules and steps," Laugeson explains.

Most people pick up on social cues, like body language and facial expressions, quite naturally. But many people with autism struggle with abstract thinking. Concrete communication works best for many, according to the Indiana Research Center for Autism.

That's why, Laugeson explains, the first step is actually about learning to listen before jumping in.

"The first step is that you’d watch the conversation and kind of listen to the conversation," she explains.

Image via iStock.

Some of us might use a prop, like a cellphone, to look distracted while listening to a conversation we’re thinking about joining. We’ll spend this time eavesdropping for a common interest.

Next, we might move closer to the conversation, waiting for a pause to jump in with something on topic. Of course, this process involves assessing whether the person or group is interested in talking to us.

Introductions usually don’t come until mid-conversation, Laugeson says. This is why "just go up and say hello" may not the best advice, especially for people who struggle to pick up on subtle cues.

There are social nuances that go beyond first interactions, too, and the curriculum at PEERS addresses many of them.

UCLA PEERS also teaches students how to deal with conflict and bullying, for example.

Individuals with autism are especially vulnerable to bullying. The Interactive Autism Network found in a study that 63% of children ages 6 to 15 with autism spectrum disorder have experienced bullying.

Image via iStock.

This is another area where neurotypical people may give ineffective advice. People usually suggest dealing with teasing in one of three ways: ignore the bully, walk away, or tell an adult. But these strategies don’t always work, Laugeson says.

"These responses often make it worse for the victim and not better," she explains.

During a bullying situation, a neurotypical person will usually respond with a short, dismissive comeback. A casual "whatever" or "Is that supposed to be funny?" can make the aggressor’s comments seem boring.

This is a great way to show the ability to stand up for one’s self while diffusing the situation and avoiding more confrontation. Laugeson teaches this tactic in PEERS to her students, helping them deal with teasing in a way others might naturally react.

Image via iStock.

These are just a few ways that PEERS helps students who struggle socially.

Since 2005, PEERS has expanded from UCLA to locations across the country and throughout the world.

The PEERS method can also help preschoolers, adolescents, and young adults with ADHD, anxiety, depression, and other socio-emotional problems too.

And it’s more accessible than ever, thanks to her book, "The Science of Making Friends," and an app called FriendMaker, which acts as a virtual coach for social situations and includes role-playing exercises for making and keeping friends.

Friendship is a critical part of mental health, though it’s easy to take this for granted.

This is why programs like UCLA PEERS are so important, particularly for individuals who can't easily navigate social situations.

According to the Mayo Clinic, friendships can boost happiness, encourage a healthy lifestyle, reduce stress, improve self-confidence, help in coping with trauma, and much more.

Laugeson teaching social skills at a PEERS group. Image from UCLA PEERS via AP.

Laugeson shared a story of a student who had been in and out of psychiatric units with a long history of mental health issues. The young man had tried many medications by the time he joined PEERS.

"This was a kid who had been highly medicated over the years. He came to me at graduation and he told me friendship was the best medicine for him," Laugeson recounted. "It absolutely can change a life to have a friend."

PEERS has helped numerous students like him, not only in making friends, but in attending college, getting jobs, and even embarking on romantic relationships.

For the past 12 years, the skills taught at PEERS have helped improve the lives of thousands of people all over the world. For a skill set that’s so rarely taught, it’s transformative to make the art of friendship a little more accessible for those who need it.

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As a child, Dr. Sangeeta Bhatia's parents didn't ask her what she wanted to be when she grew up. Instead, her father would ask, "Are you going to be a doctor? Are you going to be an engineer? Or are you going to be an entrepreneur?"

Little did he know that she would successfully become all three: an award-winning biomedical and mechanical engineer who performs cutting-edge medical research and has started multiple companies.

Bhatia holds an M.D. from Harvard University, an M.S. in mechanical engineering from MIT, and a PhD in biomedical engineering from MIT. Bhatia, a Wilson professor of engineering at MIT, is currently serving as director of the Marble Center for Cancer Nanomedicine, where she's working on nanotechnology targeting enzymes in cancer cells. This would allow cancer screenings to be done with a simple urine test.

Bhatia owes much of her impressive career to her family. Her parents were refugees who met in graduate school in India; in fact, she says her mom was the first woman to earn an MBA in the country. The couple immigrated to the U.S. in the 1960s, started a family, and worked hard to give their two daughters the best opportunities.

"They made enormous sacrifices to pick a town with great public schools and really push us to excel the whole way," Bhatia says. "They really believed in us, but they expected excellence. The story I like to tell about my dad is like, if you brought home a 96 on a math test, the response would be, 'What'd you get wrong?'"

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Someday, future Americans will look back on this era of school shootings in bafflement and disbelief—not only over the fact that it happened, but over how long it took us to enact significant legislation to try to stop it.

Five people die from vaping, and the government talks about banning vaping devices. Hundreds of American children have been shot to death in their classrooms, sometimes a dozen or so at a time, and the government has done practically nothing. It's unconscionable.

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via Hollie Bellew-Shaw / Facebook

For those of us who are not on the spectrum, it can be hard to perceive the world through the senses of someone with autism.

"You could think of a person with autism as having an imbalanced set of senses," Stephen Shore, assistant professor in the School of Education at Adelphi University, told Web MD.

"Some senses may be turned up too high and some turned down too low. As a result, the data that comes in tends to be distorted, and it's very hard to perceive a person's environment accurately," Shore continued.

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Don't test on animals. That's something we can all agree on, right? No one likes to think of defenseless cats, dogs, hamsters, and birds being exposed to a bunch of things that could make them sick (and the animals aren't happy about it, either). It's no wonder so many people and organizations have fought to stop it. But did you ever think that maybe brands are testing products on us too, they're just not telling us they're doing it?

I know, I know, it sounds like a conspiracy theory, but that's exactly what e-cigarette brands like JUUL (which corners the e-cigarette market) are doing in this country right now, and young people are on the frontlines of the fallout. Most people assume that the government would have looked at devices that allow people to inhale unknown chemicals into their lungs BEFORE they hit the market. You would think that someone in the government would have determined that they are safe. But nope, that hasn't happened. And vape companies are fighting to delay the government's ability to evaluate these products.

So no one really knows the long-term health effects of e-cigarette use, not even JUUL's CEO, nor are they informing the public about the potential risks. On top of that, according to the FDA, there's been a 78% increase in e-cigarette usage among high school and middle school-aged children in just the last two years, prompting the U.S. Surgeon General to officially recognize the trend as an epidemic and urge action against it.

These facts have elicited others to take action, as well.

Truth Initiative, the nonprofit best known for dropping the real facts about smoking and vaping since 2000 through its truth campaign, is now on a mission to confront e-cigarette brands like JUUL about the lack of care they've taken to inform consumers of the potential adverse side effects of their products. And they're doing it with the help of animal protesters who are tired of seeing humans treated like test subjects.

The March Against JUUL | Tested On Humans | truth www.youtube.com

"No one knows the long-term effects of JUULing so any human who uses one is being used as a lab rat," says, appropriately, Mario the Sewer Rat.

"I will never stop fighting JUUL. Or the mailman," notes Doug the Pug, the Instagram-famous dog star.

Truth, the national counter-marketing campaign for youth smoking prevention, hopes this fuzzy, squeaky, snorty animal movement arms humans with the facts about vaping and inspires them to demand transparency from JUUL and other e-cigarette companies. You can get your own fur babies involved too by sharing photos of them wearing protest gear with the hashtag #DontTestOnHumans. Here's some adorable inspo for you:

The dangerous stuff is already out there, but with knowledge on their side, young people will hopefully make the right choices and fight companies making the wrong ones. If you need more convincing, here are the serious facts.

Over the last decade, 127 e-cigarette-related seizures were reported, which prompted the FDA to launch an official investigation in April 2019. Since then, over 215 cases of a new, severe lung illness have sprung up all over the country, with six deaths to date. While scientists aren't yet sure of the root cause, the majority of victims were young adults who regularly vaped and used e-cigarettes. As such, the CDC has launched an official investigation into the potential link.

Sixteen-year-old Luka Kinard, a former frequent e-cigarette-user, is one of the many teens who experienced severe side effects. "Vaping was my biggest addiction," he told NowThis. "It lasted for about 15 months of my high school career." In 2018, Kinard was hospitalized after having a seizure. He also had severe nausea, chest pains, and difficulty breathing.

After the harrowing experience, he quit vaping, and began speaking out about his experience to help inform others and hopefully inspire them to quit and/or take action. "It shouldn't take having a seizure as a result of nicotine addiction like I had for teens to realize that these companies are taking advantage of what we don't know," Kinard said.

Teens are 16 times more likely to use e-cigarettes than adults, and four times more likely to take up traditional smoking as a result, according to truth, and yet the e-cigarette market remains virtually unregulated and untested. In fact, companies like JUUL continue to block and prevent FDA regulations, investing more than $1 million in lawyers and lobbying efforts in the last quarter alone.

Photo by Lindsay Fox/Pixabay

Consumers have a right to know what they're putting in their bodies. If everyone (and their pets) speaks up, the e-cigarette industry will have to make a change. Young people are already taking action across the country. They're hosting rallies nationwide and on October 9 as part of a National Day of Action, young people are urging their friends and classmates to "Ditch JUUL." Will you join them?

For help with quitting e-cigarettes, visit thetruth.com/quit or text DITCHJUUL to 88709 for free, anonymous resources.

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