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Autism and Social Skills – Helping Your Child Make Friends

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In my twenty plus years working with parents I have heard the following laments from many moms and dads more than once.

“My child struggles to relate to her peers appropriately.”  or

“I’m concerned that my child can’t make friends.” or

“My child thinks all of his classmates are his friends but they really aren’t interested in spending time with him.”

And guess what? Not all of these children were on the Autism spectrum.

In order for our children to lead satisfying social lives the biggest lesson we need to teach them as they mature is how to interact with and relate to those in the world we live in. It is a well-known fact that children on the Autism spectrum often struggle more than their non-Autistic peers to make friends or expand their ways of relating to others. Being social is a learned behavior and ALL children need help acquiring social graces through direct instruction, role modeling and practice.

The social challenges that mark many individuals with an ASD become painfully obvious to parents as their child is presented with opportunities to be social. I recently had a parent share a story about her twin daughters, both with Autism, who celebrated their sixth birthday. Mom made sure to invite the students in her daughter’s special class as well as those from the mainstream classroom that they also frequent. Despite the fact that they were hosting this party from the comfort of their own home it was agonizingly clear to mom that her girls didn’t have the friends they came home from school talking about.

What is a parent to do when they observe the woeful limitations of their child’s social skills in settings such as these?

Accept the fact that social skills need to be taught and that you are the best one to do it. Parents often seek professionals or school personnel to accomplish this task but there is much a parent can do on their own. Here are six ideas to get you started.

1 – Determine what your child’s concept of a friend is. When young children begin making connections the adults in their lives start applying labels to those relationships. We might say to little Susie after she has engaged in some parallel play in the sandbox with another child in the neighborhood, “You have a new friend.” But does Susie really understand what that means? And is it really accurate?

2 – Define the meaning of friendship for your child. In order to clarify any misconceptions he or she might have we need to teach our children what a friend ‘looks like’, ‘sounds like’ and ‘acts like’.  Making the word ‘friend’ a daily part of your vocabulary and taking every opportunity to describe what a friend is and does will benefit your child.

3 – Make the distinction between best friend, playmate, and acquaintance. Understanding these distinctions and how they can shift over time will help your child cope with the natural ebb and flow of friendships. There are many children’s books available on the topic of friendship at your local library. Find one that describes the difference between the various types and levels of friend relationships.

4 – Create a social skills curriculum you can use at home. Start with the basic skills every child needs breaking them down into baby steps that are adjusted to your child’s level of understanding and learning style. Begin by focusing on one skill at a time and don’t proceed to the next one until you feel your child understands the concept. In addition to talking and reading about specific friendship skills use other visuals such as PECS when necessary. If your child has a speech therapist ask him or her for suggestions or hire a parent coach to help you.

5 – Practice, practice, and practice friendship some more. The concept of friendship is not something you introduce your child to and talk about for a day or two.  The notion of friendship takes a while for any child to comprehend completely so using every day life circumstances to encourage your child to practice their friendship skills will help make it more concrete for them.

6 – Provide a good balance of encouragement and exposure. Some very young children with Autism will appear not to care about having friends but it is important that they understand the basics of developing such a relationship for the day when they do start to care about having friends. Finding just the right balance between gentle encouragement and not pushing too much is a challenge. You know your child best so listen to your gut and let it guide you as you maintain the goal of a satisfying social life for your child.

Remember this is a life long process and none of us, even as adults, ever master the skill of developing and maintaining friendships completely. So be persistent and have patience with your child as well as yourself.

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What do you do to help your child develop social relationships?

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