Friendships have an important role to play in our overall well-being and quality of life.
Unfortunately, many children with autism do not establish friendships and continue to have difficulties doing so once they get into their teen years. A recent study in the Journal of Autism, reported that teenagers and adults who have a diagnosis of autism may be less likely to suffer from depression and/or anxiety if they have friends. Having friends just appears to make our lives better! It goes without saying, then, that it is critical that we begin to support and encourage our children with autism to develop friendships as early as possible. Here are some tips for parents on how to help his/her child develop friendships:
1. As the Nike ad says, “Just Do it!”
The most powerful thing you can do is get out and do things that require social interaction. The more opportunities you have to do that, the more opportunities there are to teach something related to interacting with others. These can be contrived in a systematic way, for example by setting up a play date with specific goals that are related to your child’s unique areas of need and preferences, and with specific criteria on the type of peer you will include and much more.
Alternatively, these outings can be more spontaneous in nature and simply going out and experiencing novel social groups (e.g., park with other kids you may or may not know, museum free play areas, a parent child group through a local community centre and so on). The idea is to be around other kids, use interactions as learning opportunities, and seek out other kids with similar interests. Once you find such a child, you can try to connect with his/her parent and set up more regular opportunities to get them together. Wherever other children congregate is the place to be keeping in mind your child’s unique skills and his/her safety. This may be difficult at first and require that you intervene quite frequently, but the more you take advantage of the learning opportunities, the more likely you will be to find success.
For example, when you first bring your child to a local program you may find that they do not tolerate others playing with the same things as them. This might mean that initially, you have to intervene quite a bit, and as he/she becomes successful and you reinforce the positive interactions, the more likely they will be to tolerate it in the future and you will be more and more likely able to distance yourself from the situation. A Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) can help you design a customized plan for your child, and I highly encourage you to connect with a local one if you have not already.
2. Hobbies, Hobbies, Hobbies
Many children with autism have restricted interests or engage in restricted activities. For this reason alone it is important to continue to expose children with autism to novel activities. While it’s important to incorporate his/her interests to motivate and encourage learning, it is also important to expose a child to novel activities. Unless children experience new things, they will never know if they find it interesting.
Exposure is key to developing and discovering potential new interests and hobbies. This can be done systematically, where we provide access to the highly preferred activity that they are used to doing once they have tried something new first.
For example, I worked with one child where we say, “If you play with the snap circuit toy for 10 minutes, then you can play your video game.” The key is to make the novel toy or hobby fun and engaging, and that it builds upon similar interests.
3. Teach Social Skills
When it comes to making friends and keeping them it requires all kinds of skills. Here is a list of some social skills to teach if your child is at a point where they are learning to make friends:
- How to initiate a conversation;
- Taking turns in conversation;
- Talking about a variety of topics, not just restricted interests that he/she may have;
- Identifying a topic to talk about with a given person as opposed to always talking about the same thing;
- Learning not to take language too literally (e.g., when someone says “it is raining cats and dogs”)
- Attending to instructions that might involve 2 or 3 more steps;
- Understanding and using a variety of intonations to indicate questions vs. enthusiasm;
- Understanding nonverbal behavior (e.g., when to stop talking about something by paying attention to the other person’s eye contact or how they hold his/her body);
- Understanding personal space; and
- understanding how to be flexible some of the time.
These skills may be more relevant to the communication aspect of developing friendships and of course there are many more to learn. The key is to figure out the types of things that your unique child may need to learn and begin teaching those. When you begin to teach these skills it is important to give them opportunities to practice with you and then when you are out and about practicing in the real world reinforce the behavior if you see them doing it with a potential new friend.
Making friends and keeping them around is not something that is terribly easy for anyone. What we do know though is that having them is related to higher quality of life. Making it a priority to set up opportunities for your child to connect with other kids his/her age is really an important way that you can advocate for his/her overall well being in the long run.
Mazurek, M.O. (2013). Loneliness, friendship, and well-being in adults with autism spectrum disorders. Autism, 18(3), 223-232.
This article was featured in Issue 58 – The Greatest Love of All: Family