Here are five ways you can support your child’s social development.
It is a common myth that children on the autism spectrum do not crave social interaction and friendships. The way our children initiate interactions, or, at times, wait for others to initiate interactions, does usually differ from neurotypical exchanges.
Children diagnosed with autism may shy away from initiating a conversation or engage in peculiar speech patterns that may deter peers from conversing with them. Although autistic children want to make and maintain friendships, certain behaviors (like speaking about their interests a bit too often or intensely) might become a hurdle in successfully achieving these goals.
So how do we help our children to make friends?
Practice makes perfect! We want to introduce collaborative games with our child, then generalize this to siblings and later to peers. The more practice they receive with this skill, the better. It might feel unnatural for children on the autism spectrum to engage in pragmatic exchanges, such as: “How are you?”, “How was your weekend?”, “Do you want to play Uno with me?” and “What game do you want to play?”
Here are some strategies to increase motivation for collaboration with you, siblings, or peers:
Five strategies to increase collaboration
1. Use a visual schedule
In order for our children to feel successful, they need to understand what is expected of them. Imagine going to work (remember, play can sometimes be seen as “work” for autistic kids until they have mastered the skill) and your boss tells you that today you will work for an unknown period of time and on unknown tasks. This might elicit feelings of anxiety, frustration, and discouragement, right? We should help our children prepare for the expectations of an upcoming event, especially if this involves our children being a bit out of their comfort zone.
- You can let your child know with a simple “first, then” visual schedule that he/she will be able to take a break, read a book, or another favorite activity once he/she completes the time with their sibling or friend
- You can also include a more detailed schedule for your older children, where you show them how long they would need to play and what the game will involve. Keep these schedules creative and geared to your child’s interests and developmental level. Also, try to keep it visually appealing
Here are some free examples to use and change by adding stickers or photos your child might like!
2. Include turn-taking opportunities
Most of our children understand systems and rules more than arbitrary social cues. For example, if we let our child know what is expected of him/her (by including a visual schedule) we can also let him/her know that there will be turn-taking opportunities.
You can practice this by practicing collaborative games, such as “pop-up pirate” and showing them the system and rules of “your turn, my turn”. If we think of conversations, it is based on the same principle: first I have a turn to speak, you listen, and then we switch around—and stay on topic. If we teach our child the building blocks of taking turns during social interaction, we are helping him/her understand the underlying system of any social interaction, which is giving and taking.
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3. Visual rules
While you practice turn-taking and showing your child on a visual schedule what is expected of him or her, remember to have a short list of rules close by. You can write these down as situations occur, but keep the rules short, clear, and concise. Write these down on a small piece of paper; it will come in handy at a moment when the child needs a reminder of the rules.
We always work from prompts (or supports) that are quite visual, moving to more subtle and gentle reminders (such as a quick gesture pointing to the “rules” written in a small notebook).
4. Prompting in general
As parents and therapists, we want our children to be successful, yet learn how to manage disappointment. I feel that society has taught us to over-prompt (provide too much support) and this leads our children to become less resilient to disappointment and frustration.
There is a fine balance between providing adequate support in a loving way, but providing the space for our children to make “mistakes” and learn from these. An important note here is that a behavioral therapist will usually work from “hand over hand” prompts to gestural prompts—meaning if a child struggles to take his or her turn, they will lift the child’s hand and move it for him or her.
I would advocate for a less invasive prompt at first and provide your child time to process what is expected of him or her. This might include gesturing to the game your child is playing (and needs to take their turn).
5. Sincere social praise
I am staying away from the word “reinforcement” here for a reason. We don’t want our child to feel that when he or she is doing something that is expected from society on a daily basis, they should receive immediate reinforcement.
If you have been to some behavioral sessions, you may have noticed some of your child’s reactions are met with a “good looking”, “nice sitting” or “great hands down”. These reactions are expected from society and it is a known fact that eye contact, concentrating for a long period of time, or not fiddling can be extremely challenging for our children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder or related disorders.
This does not mean that when we provide inappropriately joyful reinforcement we are working on the cause of this difficulty our children are having. If we look at eye contact difficulties, it may be due to the child having an issue with dual processing (taking in more than one type of information and needing to concentrate on the auditory process instead of the visual input).
If we look at our child’s inability to sit still (behavioral therapists will usually refer to this as “compliance level”), we have to remember to include various sensory activities and movement breaks throughout our sessions to work on our child’s ability to self-regulate.
Providing sincere social praise in the form of showing your child how proud you are of him or her will have a positive impact on his/her self-esteem. If you show them that you accept their quirks, you could even indulge these every now and then. You should show your genuine delight when your child interacts with you or their sister or brother. Our children can always tell when we provide sincere encouragement compared to an automatic “good job” response.
Are girls and boys the same when it comes to social interaction?
No one child on the autism spectrum is the same, but there are marked differences between boys and girls. Research has long been focused on ASD in boys but only recently shifted to girls and the way in which their autistic symptoms manifest in their everyday lives.
Typically, girls have the ability to “mask” their symptoms better than boys, which means they are diagnosed at a later stage. Girls also “mirror” friends’ and siblings’ interactions and personality traits to try and fit in during social interactions.
This behavior makes it more difficult to diagnose girls with ASD. Nonetheless, once a diagnosis has been made, we should be aware of our child’s ability to hide and shy away from social interactions for reasons other than the possible anxiety it elicits in girls, more so than boys.
If we are able to show our children that we understand their fears, we are opening up the conversation to practice social skills before such fears occur.
How do we ensure girls engage in social interaction?
Practice makes perfect. Use the five strategies in this article and practice these skills on a daily basis. Keep activities interest-based, fun, and short at first. Let your child know the reason why you are practicing the skills: to help him or her make friends, keep friends, and be important in these friends lives. Together we can bust the myth of autistic kids not wanting to make friends.
This article was featured in Issue 123 – Autism In Girls