One of the things that melts my heart and fills me with joy is when a parent says to me: “How can I help my child be friends with your child?”
What really floors me is when one of my son’s peers asks me how to be his friend or asks his/her mother to ask me. It’s something I hear so rarely that it throws me off-guard, and my response tends towards the emotional.
I immediately want to orchestrate their social lives, but he’s not a preschooler anymore where logistics dictate that we oversee the social life of our children by arranging play dates, getting them to and from social events, and seeking out parents with children of a similar age to allow for more social opportunities.
He’s ten now and has some independence and preferences about other people. I can’t be in charge of this. As an important member of my support group told me, “Just like neurotypical kids, he has to learn to make his own friends.”
But that doesn’t mean I ignore the request. It comes from such a kind place in another person that it must be acknowledged. My process of response goes something like this:
- Enjoy the feeling that comes with this request for a moment
- Take a couple of deep breaths
- Give a heartfelt “Thank you”
- Provide some strategies
- Share what my support person told me: Your child really has to make his/her own friends
I’m honest with him/her. I’m specific. I give him/her an out.
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My strategies for befriending my son:
- Tell him things in simple language, more than once
Use only subjects and verbs until he gets what you want and then expand as he learns expectations.
- Show him that no means no
When he does something inappropriate for the activity, even if it is just a small and possibly funny thing, he will think he can do it every time. Instead, teach him the purest form of what you are doing. He’ll be very good at it once he understands.
- Teach and reinforce the rules of the “game” continuously
Just because he can play tag doesn’t mean he can play freeze tag. Treat each activity as a unique experience.
- Stop before you get frustrated
It takes him more time to process what is happening. When you feel annoyed or frustrated, stop the activity and do something with him you already know he can do. Or tell him this is over in two minutes and you have to go.
- Give him notice that you are finished playing
Two minutes or five minutes, anything is better than just stopping abruptly.
- If you enjoyed it, tell him when you will do it again
Be as specific as possible (at recess, tomorrow, on Friday) and be honest because he will expect it to happen when you say. Don’t say tomorrow unless you mean tomorrow.
- If it doesn’t work, you haven’t failed
Try another day.
- Try often
As my support friend says, “A friendship isn’t one and done.”
I didn’t make these strategies up. I borrowed them from his teachers, paras, and therapists. If you haven’t observed your child with these adults, do so. I used to attend all of his sessions before he started Kindergarten, but I stopped then as I felt I would interfere.
He’s changed so much from preschool, and his therapy has changed to match it. When I started volunteering in his classroom, I realized I hadn’t changed my behaviors with him to match his growth. I was still using what his preschool teachers and therapists used.
I now observe him in the classroom and regularly ask his teachers and therapists questions about what I can do at home. They send me task charts they use with him, color graphs for identifying emotions, and other material to help him.
The first time a parent asked me how to help her child be a friend to my child, I didn’t have an answer. I said something like, “Don’t worry about it.” That defeated both of us. I wish I’d had the benefit of experience to help that parent help our children.
I use it the most now, with his older brother, and at ten and 12, they have a beautiful brotherhood/friendship. And I’m ready for the time when a parent or child asks me, “How can we be friends?” Use my strategies or create your own to fit your child, and enjoy the result.
This article was featured in Issue 107 –Caring for Your Autism Family