How to Help Children With Autism Make Friends
Children on the autism spectrum, especially those on the milder side often want to make friends, but have trouble picking up on social cues, such as body language, hand gestures, figures of speech and facial expressions. Kids with autism may also portray behavior and use language that other kids perceive as odd or unusual. These differences can make it difficult for them to make friends and put them at risk of being bullied, particularly in middle and high school. As a result, kids on the spectrum may be hesitant to form friendships and withdraw from social situations.
Children that do not have autism typically learn social skills in an organically, through interacting and studying the people and situations surrounding them. Kids with autism may not pick up social skills as intuitively, but that doesn’t mean they are incapable of learning social skills. Those with autism often fixate on details, rather than the big picture, and learn better with a more direct, concrete approach.
Here are some tips to help your child make friends and develop social skills:
Invite a classmate over to play
Most kids are more relaxed in their home environment, which makes them able to better focus on social interaction. Try to plan activities that encourage cooperative play, but don’t be discouraged if your child doesn’t seem to engage or relate to the other child. Parallel play can still help form a bond between kids, particularly at young ages.
Talk about what friendship means
This seems easy enough, but sometimes kids confuse attention with friendship. For example, some children have perceived bullies as friends. Explain what a friend is using simple and literal terms. Let your child know that friends treat each other nicely and are interested in what you want to do, how you feel and what you say.
Bond over common interests
Having a common interest or similar passion is one of the most natural ways to form a bond. Children on the spectrum usually find it much easier to relate to other kids, both with and without autism, when they have something in common, such as a love of art, obsession with bugs, or passion for sports.
To find kids with interests similar to your child’s, talk to his classmate’s parents or parents at a local autism association or support group.
Study body language and facial expressions
Create some picture cards that display a variety of emotions in faces and body language, then help your child to understand what different emotions might look like. Once your child can easily name the emotions on the pictures, try recording someone acting out various emotions and talk to your child about what it looks like. Studying these emotions may help your child pick up on non-verbal communication and recognize when peers are getting mad, frustrated, happy or sad.
Don’t forget to praise your child and point out any positive social behavior she exhibits. For example, if you see your child sharing toys with another child, you might say “You did a great job sharing with your friend! That was really nice of you!”. Encouraging your child to build his social skills through recognition and praise will not only help her to build social skills, but it will also build self-esteem.
We provide many different social opportunities at the Sarah Dooley Center for Autism, both in and outside the classroom. For example, the Spring Fling and field trip to the Children’s Museum were both big hits! Find out more about our behavioral teaching strategy here.