Unique Opportunity: UCLA CART Treatment Study targeting Social Skills in Teens and Young Adults with Autism

Social and communication skills have been linked to levels of happiness, self-esteem, and quality of life (Moody and Laugeson 2020). A defining characteristic of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is an overall challenge with social communication, which may begin from a young age and can follow individuals through adolescence and adulthood. For those with ASD, improvements in social skills and social communication have been demonstrated through social skills training, which often includes behavioral rehearsals, modeling, and social reinforcement through praise and other positive feedback (Hall et al. 2018). A forefront in evidence-based social skills training that has proven effective is the Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills (PEERS), a 16-week, structured social skills program developed by Dr. Elizabeth Laugeson at UCLA.

Despite the evidence-based gains achieved from social skills training, in particular PEERS, research suggests that there remains a significant number of high-functioning adults with ASD who remain isolated, with little or no motivation to achieve relationships. A key component that may help in our understanding this difference is examining the underlying physiological mechanisms in individuals with ASD that may differ from those without ASD. An important contributing factor appears to involve differences in social reward processes that affect social motivation. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain, is known to be an important factor in social interest, but it’s role has not yet been carefully examined in individuals with ASD. This project, led by James McCracken, MD, will examine the combined effects of PEERS and L-DOPA, a medication used to treat dopamine levels in the brain to determine if there are meaningful differences in those who receive the medication versus those who are randomized to placebo (inactive medication), in addition to social skills intervention.

Participants may be eligible for this 16-week study if they are between the ages of 13-30 years old and have an ASD diagnosis. Participants in this study will receive comprehensive diagnostic and cognitive evaluations to determine eligibility and, if they meet criteria, will be randomized to either the study medication or placebo (inactive medication); In addition, participants will receive pre and post neurological testing, questionnaires, interviews, vital signs, laboratory testing, and brain scans at no cost. PEERS will include weekly zoom sessions simultaneously with participant and caregiver. There will also be weekly visits with the study doctor to check for improvement and any potential effects from the medication. Most of these visits will be remote, with the exception of 6-in person visits - Screening, Baseline, weeks 4, 8 (midpoint), 12 and 16 (endpoint). Participants will receive compensation of up to $250 if completion of all 6 in-person visits.

The Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills (PEERS®), housed in UCLA CART, is an international program used in over 85 countries and has been translated into more than a dozen languages. As one of the only evidence-based social skills programs for youth with ASD, PEERS® offers caregiver-assisted social skills training for motivated adolescents and young adults who are interested in learning ways to make and keep friends. Lessons are provided over Telehealth using Zoom and focus on social skills essential for friendship and relationship building, including entering and exiting conversations, finding sources of friends, hosting get-togethers with friends, good sportsmanship skills, handling bullying and teasing, and bringing up and responding to disagreements. Skills are taught through didactic lessons with concrete rules and steps of social etiquette, role play demonstrations, behavioral rehearsals, and weekly homework assignments.

For more information about this study or eligibility criteria, contact the UCLA PEERS® Clinic by email at peersclinic@ucla.edu or by phone at 310-26-PEERS (310-267-3377). The UCLA PEERS® Clinic website can be accessed at: www.semel.ucla.edu/peers.