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Helping A Child With Autism Make Friends

Published on 06/27/2022
helping a child with autism make friends

Having an ASD child does not mean they have to live a lonely and unsocialized life. Quite the opposite. There’s never been an easier time to help your child make friends, but it may take a little education, support, and practice. 

Tips For Children With ASD To Make Friends

Here are professional tips from applied behavior specialists on how to help a child with ASD develop satisfying friendships. 

Rewrite any negative stories you (or your partner) hold

If you believe your child will struggle to make friendships, or if you hold internal stress and anxiety around friend time or playdates, you unconsciously impede your child’s social abilities. Parents who are anxious or enmeshed in their ASD child’s experience make it more challenging for their children to find their way in the social world.

Those energies transfer to your child and make their own anxiety worse. It is also perceived by the parents or guardians of potential friends, or the potential friends/playmates themselves, making it harder to relax and go with the flow. If you’re “afraid” or “worried” your child won’t have friends, seek support from a licensed therapist or a behavioral support team specializing in ASD individuals to process that outside your child’s realm.

Whenever you’re able, take time to observe children who do not have ASD in play situations. You’ll see they display many of the same behaviors as your own child. Most children have to learn how to share, play, communicate, and get along with others at some level. Each of us has our strengths and weaknesses. Keep that in mind and check the reactivity of assuming every “unappealing or negative” thing your child does is due to ASD. 

Practice successful playtime at home

One of the worst things to do for a child with autism is turning down playdates and invitations. Yes, launching your child into the world of play - or socialization with a new child or group of children - may bring all of their challenges to the forefront at once. That is a recipe for disaster rather than success. Instead, model playtime at home and see where your child has the biggest hang-ups.

Most children with autism share specific struggles:

  • Being unwilling to share toys.
  • Taking things they want from others (often forcefully).
  • Difficulty reading social cues, especially nonverbal cues such as facial expressions, vocal tone, and gestures.
  • Trouble communicating their wishes or feelings
  • Rigid attachment to routines and a tendency to meltdown if things don’t go their way.
  • High anxiety levels in social situations make them more sensitive and reactive.
  • Fixation on one negative social experience that makes them feel every social interaction has the same results.

Fortunately, you know your child best. Now is your opportunity for you, siblings, close family friends, or patient neighbors to begin practicing playtime. 

Balance fun, smooth, and successful phases of play with intentionally instigating scenarios that would come up with future friends. Then, coach your child through possible scenarios and reinforce their positive behaviors like sharing, taking turns, and waiting.

Educate prospective friends beforehand

The more a friend’s parent/guardian is informed and educated, the better. We recommend sharing A Friend’s Guide to Autism, from autismspeaks.org, before setting up a play date, also letting them know of possible triggers, and how to best support your child during the play date, and in a developmentally appropriate manner, inform your child’s friend about how kids with autism may express themselves in a different manner sometimes and though it may not seem like they still want to play and have fun. This information will help them prepare their child for a more smooth and successful time together.

Continue reinforcing successful communication skills

This is a lifelong habit for all children and adults. Children with autism need support to articulate their needs in a way where everyone involved is on the same page. Keeping developmental level in mind, some helpful skills to practice are: 

  • Taking turns (communication, choosing what to play, while playing games or in “me-first” scenarios)
  • Initiating conversation
  • Asking about their friends’ interests
  • Learning about non-verbal cues (especially facial expressions and gestures)
  • Understanding and respecting personal space
  • Learning how to calm or redirect when plans or timing change from the original schedule

Doing this at home makes it easier for your child to apply what they learned in other settings.

Baby steps

The first play dates you schedule should be one-on-one to reduce overstimulation or confusion. Short and sweet is always best. Leaving children wanting more, far exceeds the damage done when play dates go too long.

Find prospective friends with similar interests/hobbies

As you know, children with autism are likely to become fixated on a barrage set of interests and hobbies. Exposing children with ASD to new things and activities is essential. However, it is important to understand that there is no harm in having friends that share the same interests as well! Finding friends with similar hobbies or interests can also help motivate your child to engage in social interactions, share, and play.

Read stories and watch shows with excellent friend modeling

Reading stories and watching shows that model friendships, including how to resolve conflict, is a great way for children with ASD to absorb relational messaging in both good and bad times. Examples include:

Books

Shows (in order from younger children to tweens)

  • Sesame Street (even older kids are often entertained by this one)
  • Little Bear
  • Thomas & Friends
  • Esme & Roy
  • Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood
  • Spirit
  • Franklin & Friends
  • Tumble Leaf
  • Alexa & Katie
  • Zeke & Luther

Dive In!

Again, consistent teaching, modeling, and practicing are essential. However, resist the urge to go overboard as there’s no such thing as a perfect friend or playdate. Ups and downs are normal. Remember that struggles and mistakes show us where we need to practice more. Getting that first few play dates and park dates under your belt are the beginning of helping your child with autism make friends.

Behavior Analysis And Personalized Plans Can Help

Do you feel out of your element when helping your child make friends? Do you feel your child’s social challenges make it impossible for them to get along with others? We’re here to provide the support you need. 

The Autism Response Team offers Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), designed to enable individuals with a disability to participate in life’s activities through services provided across all settings. Contact us to learn more about what we do.

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