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Helping Your Child with Autism Maintain Friendships

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What would life be like without friendships? Some of us may be able to identify a time in our childhood when we were friendless or felt as if we were. If you are a parent of a child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder your child may be living that scenario right now. Most children with Autism struggle to make friends and once they make a friend the other challenge is to know how to keep the friendship going. Luckily there is much a parent can do to help their child learn how to maintain the social connections they do make.

We are all social animals and we live in a social world. Some of us may thoroughly enjoy making social connections and others may view it as a chore or an intrusion into our world. There are children on the Autism spectrum who desperately want to have friends and others who need to be drawn out to be social or don’t seem to care. Whether your child cares or not, it is important to help him or her develop the social skills required to maintain basic relationships, whether it is with a friend, a grandparent or neighbor. These skills are crucial for any child’s future as they transition into adulthood and have to deal with an employer or a spouse.

We cannot sit back and expect that our children will know how to sustain a relationship once they have one – none of us were born with these skills. Despite the fact that social learning automatically begins at birth through observation and experience, all children need direct guidance in this area.  Children on the Autism spectrum require even more instruction then their neuro-typical counterparts, instruction that is very specific and presented with lots of repetition.

For tips to help your child learn how to ‘make friends’ you can refer to this article, Autism and Social Skills – Helping Your Child Make Friends – and here are some strategies that will help your child sustain quality friendships that last.

– Encourage your child to be inquisitive – Once your child has acquired a playmate discuss the importance of taking an interest in what the other person does. Coaching your child to be appropriately inquisitive about their friend and teaching him to ask questions in a kind, courteous and sincere manner will help any relationship blossom.

– Teach conversation starters – Introduce your child to various ways to begin a conversation and keep it going. For tips and pointers you may want to check out this post from, Stephen Borgman, How to Teach Children With Aspergers to Start a Conversation.

– Introduce your child to friendship etiquette – Teaching respect, empathy, turn taking and perspective is often a challenge for children with Autism who struggle with theory of mind but this is vital to the process. The article, 4 Tips to Expand Your Child’s Ability to Empathize, can help you discover some simple ways to build empathy in your child.

– Be your child’s social director. Provide ample opportunities for your child to engage socially by inviting her friends to the house. This provides your child with a social laboratory to practice in and you with an opportunity to observe your child in action and casually give pointers and tips as needed.

– Be your child’s movie director. Consider videotaping your child when he has a friend over. Watching the video after the fact enables you and your child to observe how he engaged with his friend. Stopping and rewinding the video makes it easy for your child to look for things he did well and ways he could have done something differently.

– Ask “what if “ questions whenever the opportunity arises. While watching television or movies with your child, stopping the action and inquiring what he might do in a similar social situation can push them to think socially.

– Practice with your child. There is no such thing as practicing too much with a child. Constant repetition is what creates habits and ways of relating, especially those that don’t come naturally.  Also, practicing in as many situations as possible is important because it will help your child generalize her skills from one circumstance to the next.

– Expose them to all children. Experts have proven that it is good for children with special needs to be integrated with normally developing children. Left to their own devices, a group of children on the Autism spectrum might easily retire into their individual worlds. Children with Autism should be exposed to social scenes that offer varied opportunities to interact. Exposing children to new activities where social skills need to be practiced such as team sports, art lessons, theater camp, local environmental programs, community service projects, the YMCA or mentorship opportunities are all great choices.

– Use breakups to your advantage. Remember that friendship is a two way street and that the outcome depends just as much on the social skills of the other child. This means your child may lose some of her friendships through no fault of her own, but don’t worry, all is not lost. Use the experience as a teaching tool, helping your child dissect why the relationship failed and identifying what, if anything, she or the other party could have done differently.

If you are persistent in teaching and modeling the basic social skills necessary for maintaining relationships throughout your child’s young life he will have a much better chance of social success in adulthood when relationships are even more significant for a satisfying life.

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What do you do to help your child maintain his or her friendships?

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