Many children with disabilities struggle to make friends at school, church, or within their neighborhoods. Children with autism are no different. Nothing hurts the heart of parents more than witnessing the social isolation that their child with autism may be experiencing daily.
So, how can parents help? Here is a list of ten practical suggestions for assisting your child in developing a circle of friends.
Development of Social Skills
Start by ensuring that your child’s Individual Education Plan (IEP) at school includes social skills training. Work closely with your child’s special education teacher. You can review the social stories developed for your child, the scripted dialogues that are practiced daily, or any visuals being utilized to prompt social conversations.
If you know how your child is progressing in recognizing facial expressions, utilizing appropriate voice volume, identifying the use of humor and sarcasm, employing voice inflection, dealing with disagreements, and respecting appropriate personal space when communicating with others, you can better transfer these skills from school into your own home and community.
The more practice your child has with developing social skills at school and at home, the more successful and comfortable he/she will become with using them.
Generalizing Social Skills
Students with autism need to be given opportunities within the community and home to practice social skills. Practice, practice, and more practice will allow them to make errors and correct them on future attempts. Children with autism can practice social skills by ordering food for themselves at a restaurant, introducing themselves or family members to others at community events, selling lemonade at a lemonade stand, helping the elderly with chores, requesting assistance at a store, and understanding that not everyone will want to share specific interests.
Know Your Child`s Interests
As the parent of a child with autism you probably know your child better than anyone else. Be certain to take some time and also become familiar with the interests that your own child has. This will give you the knowledge necessary to place your child in social opportunities with other children that share his/her particular interest.
Clubs and Activities
Knowing your child’s interests is the first step. While not all children will share your child’s particular interest, some will. Encourage your child to develop musical, artistic, or athletic skills. It will be your responsibility to search for ways to incorporate his/her interests by joining clubs or activities at school or in the community.
Placement in such activities will be a great opportunity for your child with autism to interact with his/her peers. The more time children spend with other kids, the more social interactions they will have, and the more they will practice social skills and possibly form a friendship.
Plan a Social Event
Many parents dread the idea of their child not being invited to a social event by the other children at school or in the neighborhood. We have all heard the stories of a child with autism inviting the entire class to his/her birthday party and no one showing up.
So why wait until the actual birthday to host a party at your home? You could host a Friday night “pizza party” with video games at your house, a movie night complete with popcorn, or a trip to the local zoo or ice skating rink. To ensure the success of this event, you can work closely with your child`s teacher. Allow students at school to assist with the planning of this event—maybe they can pick what movie they would like to watch or what food they would like to eat.
Allowing choices will help them become invested, and they’ll be more likely to attend the event. As a parent with an autistic child, it will be important for you to keep an open line of communication with the parents of the invited children. You can explain what type of event you are hosting or allow the parents to visit your home beforehand if they desire. Interacting with the parents will assist with building a level of trust as well as give these other parents an opportunity to ask any questions they may have.
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Expanding A Child’s Interests
While it is important for you as a parent to understand the interests of your own child, it is also your responsibility to expand your child’s interests. Some children with autism may have a narrow focus on only a specific topic or activity. Sometimes a child with autism needs to be taken out of his/her comfort zone and exposed to something new.
These new experiences may help a child develop stronger abilities to transition to new activities, as well as expose him/her to other individuals who may become friends. Volunteering in the community is an excellent way to expand your child’s social opportunities. Kids can help serve meals at the local homeless shelter, care for animals in an animal shelter, serve food at a school concession stand, or volunteer to run errands in the front office at school.
Checking on Social Progress
It will be essential for you to as a parent to stay in consistent contact with the professionals working with your child at school. These professionals interact with your child daily. You can check with them to see how your child is interacting with other students during recess on the playground if he/she is eating lunch and conversing with peers, if he/she actively involved in group activities during physical education class, and if he/she engages in social conversations during class.
Involved and helpful parents can also volunteer their time at their child’s school and be able to observe the improvements occurring with their child with autism.
Many families with autistic children have found religious communities to be a great place to allow their children to practice their social skills and make new friends. It will be important for parents to explain to leaders in the church that their child has autism and what that may mean for their involvement in various programs.
It doesn’t cost a family anything to enroll their child in a Sunday school class, youth program, or children’s church program. All of these programs will place your child with peers to interact with in a natural environment. Your child may decide to attend summer camp, bag groceries for a food drive for the needy, or assist in the annual Christmas play. All of these activities will place your child with autism around other children and give him/her a full opportunity to continue to develop their friendships with peers.
Children with autism need to understand what “autism” means. They may hear others refer to them as “autistic” and not clearly understand it. Having a parent or trusted teacher explain what it means could assist them with “self-advocating.” Children with autism can’t self-advocate for their own needs if they don’t know that they have autism and what it involves.
Friends versus Bullies
Don’t assume that your child understands what a “friend” is. Both teachers and parents can work on this concept. Children with autism may need direct instruction on how to identify a friend versus a bully. For example: a friend may be someone that is nice or kind to you, as opposed to a bully who calls you names.
A friend may want to share his/her lunch with you, as opposed to a bully who steals your carton of milk at lunch. Specific examples like these may assist your child with autism in correctly understanding the difference between a friend and a bully. However, it will be important for your child to understand that just because someone is a friend does not mean that he/she has to agree with him/her on everything or always share all of his/her interests.
While most parents would love to have their children with autism surrounded by a strong circle of friends, that may not be reality. In fact, most of us have survived life with just one true and loyal friend. The same can definitely be true for your child with autism.
This article was featured in Issue 103 – Supporting Emotional Needs