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15-Aug-2016 12:42

They've enrolled in a 16-week program to help them navigate the treacherous waters of social interaction, and on this Monday night, week 11 of the session, they're diving into the perils of dating. The nine students around the table have a variety of developmental or mental disorders; the majority of them have autism.

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Some, such as 26-year-old Monica Romero, found out only recently that they were on the spectrum; others, such as Breanna, were diagnosed at a very young age.And she constantly reminds students to think from another person's perspective. Thoughtful and bubbly, he's often the first to cheer on a classmate or offer an encouraging "wow" after someone speaks. Soon, he stopped talking altogether."He forgot everything. He was a different person," his mother, Margaret, says.Many people with autism struggle with issues of personal space and physical touch. After several rounds of tests and seeing specialists, Joey and his parents were sent to this same building at UCLA, where he finally received a diagnosis: autism.That's the goal of the Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills, or PEERS."A lot of people think that social skills in general are innate, that you're hard-wired in some way and that you either are born with social skills or you're not," Laugeson says. "One of the things I like about this class is it helps one be more in tune to other people's needs and desires," says Joey Juarez, 25."But I think what PEERS has established is that this is actually a set of skills that can be learned, that you don't have to be born with them."Part of that, she says, is practicing different scenarios: how to plan a date; how to offer to pay at the end of dinner; how to politely decline spending the night, without reprimanding the person for asking. Some students in the class are quiet by nature; Joey is not. But before he was 3, his parents started to worry that he might have a hearing problem.

Some, such as 26-year-old Monica Romero, found out only recently that they were on the spectrum; others, such as Breanna, were diagnosed at a very young age.And she constantly reminds students to think from another person's perspective. Thoughtful and bubbly, he's often the first to cheer on a classmate or offer an encouraging "wow" after someone speaks. Soon, he stopped talking altogether."He forgot everything. He was a different person," his mother, Margaret, says.Many people with autism struggle with issues of personal space and physical touch. After several rounds of tests and seeing specialists, Joey and his parents were sent to this same building at UCLA, where he finally received a diagnosis: autism.That's the goal of the Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills, or PEERS."A lot of people think that social skills in general are innate, that you're hard-wired in some way and that you either are born with social skills or you're not," Laugeson says. "One of the things I like about this class is it helps one be more in tune to other people's needs and desires," says Joey Juarez, 25."But I think what PEERS has established is that this is actually a set of skills that can be learned, that you don't have to be born with them."Part of that, she says, is practicing different scenarios: how to plan a date; how to offer to pay at the end of dinner; how to politely decline spending the night, without reprimanding the person for asking. Some students in the class are quiet by nature; Joey is not. But before he was 3, his parents started to worry that he might have a hearing problem.She goes around the table, and each of the young adults — four women and five men — practices with either Albert or Elina.