While social skills training is an important treatment priority for many young adults with ASD and other social challenges, much of the research in this area has focused on interventions with children. Very few researchers have devoted time to investigate the efficacy and effectiveness of social skills training for young adults. The lack of evidence based social skills programs to improve social competence and promote friendship formation in adolescence is what inspired the development of the PEERS® program. The PEERS® for Young Adults social skills program bridges off the adolescent program, with continued use of a parent-assisted model for social coaching to reinforce the use of skills in natural settings.
The first randomised control trial of PEERS® was published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders (Laugeson, Frankel, Mogil, & Dillon, 2009) in 2009. The study compared 33 teens, aged 13-17 years, with ASD in two different conditions. Adolescents were randomly assigned to either receive a parent-assisted version of the PEERS® intervention or were placed in a delayed treatment control group. Results indicated that, in comparison to the control group, those that received treatment showed improvement in their knowledge of social skills, increased frequency of hosted get togethers, showed changes in their friendship quality and improved overall social skills, as reported by parents. Teachers also reported an improvement in social skills.
In 2012, the results were replicated for a different group of 28 teens with ASD (Laugeson, Frankel, Gantman, Dillon, & Mogil, 2012). Results revealed improvements in parent-reported overall skills, specifically in the areas of improved cooperation, assertion, and responsibility for those who completed the PEERS® program. Results further showed a decrease in autism symptoms related to social responsiveness in the areas of improved social motivation, social communication, social cognition, and social awareness, as well as a decrease in autistic mannerisms for treatment participants. Teens reported increased frequency of hosted get-togethers and improved knowledge of social etiquette were also observed. Treatment gains were generally maintained at the end of a 14-week follow-up assessment period, and in some cases improved even more.
Using a similar model to the PEERS® for adolescence social skills program, the PEERS® for Young Adults program recruits a social coach (i.e. a parent, sibling, peer mentor, job coach, life coach, or other family members) to help improve skills in socially motivated adults. In the first randomized controlled trial for the PEERS® for Young Adults, 17 young adults aged 18 to 23 with ASD participated in a study with their caregivers testing the effectiveness of the intervention (Gantman, Kapp, Orenski, & Laugeson, 2012). Participants were randomly assigned to a treatment or a delayed control group. The results indicated that the individuals who participated in treatment improved significantly more than the delayed treatment control group, particularly when it came to social skill knowledge. Caregivers noted improvements in social communication and decreased autistic mannerisms. Overall, there were improved social skills in the areas of cooperation, self-control, and assertion, as well as improved empathy and increased frequency of hosted and invited get-togethers (Laugeson, 2017).
In a second randomised controlled trial, 22 young adults aged 18 to 24 participated with their social coaches in the PEERS® for Young Adults program to test the effectiveness of the program. Participants were randomly assigned to a treatment or a delayed control group. According to the social coaches, the treatment group improved significantly in overall social skills, particularly in the areas of assertion and cooperation. They also reported a significant reduction in ASD symptoms. in which young adults showed to be more socially responsive and motivated, and were exhibiting less autism mannerisms. The results also revealed that social skills knowledge and the frequency of social engagement through hosted get-togethers improved following participation in the PEERS® program. Furthermore, most treatment gains were maintained at a 16-week follow up assessment with new improvements observed (Laugeson, 2017).
The research findings outlined above support the success and effectiveness of a parent (carer) assisted program in improving the social functioning of adults with ASD. Despite limited testing, it is expected that similar results will occur with individuals with ADHD, depression, anxiety and other developmental disabilities.