It is a proud moment for a mom when she sees her child making friends. However, if your child has autism spectrum disorder, he/she might face difficulties in picking up social cues, thus making friends a challenge.
Your kid wants friends but does not know how to make and keep them. Your parenthood strategy takes a new turn as you try to figure out how to help your autistic kid develop social skills. Keep your calm, mama! Simply because your kid does not currently have friends does not mean he/she will never establish great friendships in future.
Here are five simple ways you can help your autistic kid make friends:
1. Help your kid understand the meaning of friendship
It may seem obvious that kids understand the meaning of friendship. However, for autistic kids, their connections with the environment and people around them are different. They may perceive bullies as friends or fail to recognize the distinction between friends and acquaintances, thus the need to help them understand what friendship should be. Sounds easy! Talk to him/her about friendship in simple and literal language that is easy to comprehend.
Do not just pull out the definition of friendship from the dictionary. Begin by asking him/her whether there are children who treat him/her nicely or asking whom he/her likes spending time with during school breaks. Afterward, you can explain that friends are people who treat him/her nicely, enjoy spending time with him/her, like doing similar activities together, and care about how he/she is doing. This will help break the ice in developing your child’s social skills.
2. Plan for play dates
The other way you can encourage your autistic kid to practice social skills is by setting up play dates. Invite his/her classmates or neighbors to your home who are or are near his/her age. Plan play activities in advance. Make it a rule that there will be no technology games during a playdate, then make it short and sweet.
Encourage your kid to interact with others but do not feel discouraged if he/she does not seem to interact with them; even parallel play helps in building bonds for children at a young age. The home environment helps him/her feel more comfortable than playing at school, hence promoting social skills and confidence with peers.
It takes a lot of effort to host play dates but it is worth it. Make these activities more frequent to foster stronger connections between your autistic kid and his/her peers. Do not be discouraged if other parents do not invite your kid for play dates.
3. Create bonds based on common interests
Learn what activities your child enjoys doing. Does he/she love art, chess, music, or sports? Connecting him/her to other kids with similar interests is a way of helping your child make new friends. For instance, you can enroll your kid in an art class if he/she enjoys doing artwork or let him join a sports program if he/she is into those.
You can also have your autistic kid join small groups in your community or church where he/she can meet with other kids with similar interests and make new friends.
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4. Teach your kid body languages and nonverbal communication
Your autistic kid might have difficulties engaging in social communication due to trouble expressing his/her thoughts through gesture, facial expressions, posture, voice tone, or eye contact. This can make him/her portray behaviors other kids find unusual, thus making it difficult to connect.
Guide him/her through this crucial communication tool by interpreting different non-verbal cues used by kids during play dates. Encourage straight posture and eye contact when he/she is talking with his peers. Find picture cards of faces displaying different emotions and help him/her recognize the meaning of each one. Some special cognitive therapy will be a[ good practice too. This will help him relate to his playmates when they use non-verbal cues to communicate.
5. Reward and recognize positive progress
When your kid portrays positive social behavior, you should praise and encourage him/her for the effort he/she has put forth. If you see him/her sharing his/her toys during play dates, encourage the act by verbally acknowledging he/she has done great. If he/she contributes to a conversation, listen keenly and respond.
Give him/her small gifts such as stickers or toys as a form of reward for the progress. This will encourage him/her to continue trying to develop his/her social skills and making friends.
It is very possible to help your autistic kid make friends to by providing parenting support, opportunities, and tools that help to improve his/her social skills. Be patient and take it easy on yourself if your kid’s progress in making friends is slow. Friendship takes time to build. There is nothing wrong with making your child’s success in making friends a long term project.
It is no secret that kids with autism process everything differently. Give them time and follow their lead. Practice calmness and mindfulness and let them enjoy their quiet space but do not isolate them. Do not be afraid to approach a child therapist for intervention if none of your efforts seems to work.
This article was featured in Issue 99 – Navigating Relationships With Autism