Making friends is an important part of every child’s life, but it can be harder for a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). You can’t make friends for your child with ASD, but you can give her the chance to meet peers and work on social skills.
Why friendships are important for children and teenagers
Friendships help your child to develop socially and emotionally. They can boost your child’s self-esteem and confidence.
Having friends also gives your child experience in managing emotions, responding to the feelings of others, negotiating, cooperating and problem-solving.
Autism spectrum disorder and friendships
Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) tend to have a harder time developing friendships. This might be because they have trouble with:
starting and keeping conversations going
working out what other people are thinking and feeling
taking part in other children’s activities
understanding facial expressions and body language
adjusting to new social situations
solving social problems, like how to sort out disagreements.
Children with ASD might need help developing skills in these areas.
I’m not asking for my child to be the life of the party, or a social butterfly. I just want him to be happy and have some friends of his own. He is a wonderful kid, and I hope someday others can see that.
– Parent of a child with ASD
Making friends: helping your child with autism spectrum disorder
Although you can’t make friends for your child with ASD, you can give her opportunities to meet new people and make friends of her own. Here are some ideas.
Find out what activities your child enjoys
Identify your child’s interests and strengths, and help your child connect with children who enjoy similar things. This could be through a playgroup, after-school class, or special interest club. When your child does activities that he enjoys, it’ll also help him to keep paying attention when there are other people around.
Invite children home to play
You can encourage friendships by inviting children home or out to play. If your child goes to school, you could try asking her teacher which children are showing interest in her, or which children share interests with her. You could also ask your child who she’d like to be friends with.
It can help to plan with your child the things that he might like to do with other children. Try to set up activities and games that are fun and encourage cooperative play. Some children do better with structured activities that don’t involve open-ended, imaginative play.
Some children feel more comfortable at home, but others might not want someone else to touch their favourite things. If this sounds like your child, you could put away the things that she doesn’t want to share or you could organise something out of the house. For example, it could be an activity that encourages a positive shared experience, like a trip to the playground, museum or aquarium.
Use resources in your community
Enrolling your child in playgroups and after-school activities can also help to promote friendships. You could try activities that are related to your child’s interests, like astronomy, chess, Lego or computer coding clubs. Structured activity groups often work well for children with ASD – for example, Girl Guides, Scouts or martial arts.
Our article on play and friendships for children with disability has lots of information and tips on encouraging children of different abilities to play together.
Social interactions: helping your child with autism spectrum disorder
There are many ways you can help your child with ASD learn positive social skills.
Be a role model
Your child will learn many key social skills from watching you interact positively with others. When you show your child the kind of social behaviour you want to see, it’s called modelling. You can model skills like listening, showing empathy, problem-solving, and working through conflicts.
Help your child develop basic social skills
Your child needs a range of social skills to make friends, including the ability to say hello, take turns, share and compromise.
You can help your child learn these skills by practising social skills at home with your child as you play games. It helps if you describe to your child the skills you’re modelling. For example, to encourage sharing and turn-taking, you might say, ‘I’m going to be friendly and share my toy car with you’, or ‘I’m going to have a turn on the swing. Your turn next’.
Social Stories™ can also be an effective way to teach your child skills like communicating and joining in with others. For example, a Social Story™ for ‘Talking to my friends’ might include the following points:
Sometimes I want to talk to people.
I can talk to children.
I can talk to my teacher.
I can talk to my family.
I can talk to other grown-ups.
When people talk together, they need to be near each other.
When I want to talk to somebody, I can walk over to the person, look at them and say the person’s name.
I wait until the person looks at me.
When the person is looking at me, we can talk.
Recognise and praise your child’s success
Give your child lots of praise and encouragement when you see him interacting positively with others. For example, when you see your child offer a toy to another child you might smile and say, ‘Wow! That is so friendly. You shared your blocks with your friend and waited your turn’.
Rewarding your child with praise will help to build her social skills and self-esteem.
Bullying, peer pressure and autism spectrum disorder
Children with ASD are more likely to be the target of bullying than their peers.
This is because children who bully tend to pick on children who are quiet and shy and lack friendship skills. They also tend to pick on children who behave differently, or who have different interests, trends and styles from themselves and other children the same age.
Also, children with ASD might not know how to join in a group and might act in inappropriate ways, like wrestling, being ‘attention-seeking’ or dominating. Other children might find this annoying, and it can end up in physical or verbal clashes with peers.
And children with ASD might have trouble working out who are the ‘good guys’ and who are the ‘bad guys’. This means that they might be less likely to avoid children who bully in the playground. They might also believe what they’re told – for example, ‘If you do this, I’ll be your friend’.
To help your child avoid bullies and being bullied, try talking with him about why bullying happens and what he can do to look after himself at school and in other situations. A Social Story™ can also be a good way to explain this information to your child.
© raisingchildren.net.au, translated and adapted with permission