It is very difficult trying to find an equitable balance of intervention when dealing with children making friends. However, when you add to the mix – autism- you create an inequitable playing field.
As parents we strive so hard to protect and nurture our children, but when you have a child that needs social guidance – how much should you guide?
It reminds me of when my daughter was two years old and people would ask me if bringing her to a playgroup would help her social skills. I couldn’t help but imagine a handicapped child in a wheelchair being asked if maybe he attended football games, that his attendance would one day help him become a pro football player. While I do understand the logic behind their question, it was always a painful reminder as to how invisible a developmental delay can be to people.
According to Gwen Dewar of Parenting Science, three teachable skills are needed to make friends:
“conversational skills, interpersonal skills, and emotional self-control.”
Obviously it would be difficult to expect any autistic child to master these categories, but as parents we can be a role model.
Often times the parents that won’t introduce themselves are teaching their kids to not bother initiating a conversation. If your child has the gift of speech encourage them to approach kids and say, “My name is ______________. What’s your name?” and teach them to wait for an answer. Remember it will take a lot of practice and it will probably sound rehearsed but that’s ok. If your child is non-verbal then speak to a child for them. Ie. “This is my son Jason. What is your name?” Wait for a response. Then say something like, “Hi, Scott it’s nice to meet you. Would you like to play trains with Jason?” You are teaching them how to start a conversation. We can’t always wait for the other person to start talking. Talk with your child’s SLP (speech Language Pathologist) they might have a more specific approach for your child’s special needs.
Some important interpersonal skills for children are conflict resolution, and manners. As I stated earlier, it is vital for parents to be a role model. Children need to see how to resolve conflicts fairly. For instance, when my kids fight over a toy or the computer we set the timer. This way everyone gets the same amount of play time, which is fair. The timer is concrete. If you aren’t at home – there is even an app for that. The app
Another important skill to learn is to stay calm. Try to preemptively catch your child before they meltdown (if possible). Try to learn the signals that they show when they get aggravated or irritated. Teaching them to take deep, diaphragmatic breathes or removing them from the situation until they are calm is most helpful. If they can’t regain composure then go home. Witnessing a meltdown can scare some children. So it is best to remove your child if it is possible and go back another day when they are calmer. Try giving them something that soothes them like a blanket, a fidget, or compressions, or brushing.
In most interpersonal situations, a person needs to analyze the situation and then decide how to react. Since children with autism have trouble noting these situations it is important to do role play and/or discuss events. For instance, when we get out of the car we are going to go inside and give Mike his birthday present. We will hand the present to Mike or put it on a gift table for him to open later. Today is Mike’s birthday so he will be opening presents, not you. Your birthday is __________ and today is NOT your birthday. So we will give Mike his gift. If he uses his good manners and says, “Thanks or thank you.” Then we should say, “You’re welcome.”
This helps kids know what is expected of them and what to expect from the event while reinforcing the interpersonal skill of having good manners.
Another great skill to teach your kids is to be an “active listener.” This means that they nod when they are listening to someone to show some sign that they are listening to the person speaking. Since it is difficult for autistics to look people in the eye, it is recommended to teach them alternative ways to imply that they are listening. You need to find what works best for your child. For some people I have seen them nod, for others they announce that they will stare at the floor but that they are listening.
Scientific evidence has shown that some key things to do in an effort to help making friends an easier task is to:
- Avoid Competitive Games
- Try to pair younger kids with kids of a similar interest and of similar maturity.
http://www.parentingscience.com/kids-make-friends.html viewed on Jan 20th, 2013