The benefits of friendships are many. From having someone to share interests and spend time with to the increased independence, self-confidence and self-esteem a social life provides. Making and maintaining friendships can, however, be difficult for children and young people with autism. This can be for a variety of reasons- from speech and language problems, sensory inhibitors and difficulty reading social cues.
There is, fortunately, plenty you can do as a parent or carer to help. There are benefits for you too, beyond a happy child. Your social circle may increase along with that of your child and there’s an opportunity for you too to make new friendships and gain support from other parents and carers.
Tips for parents with young children
Find opportunities for your child which are suitable to their needs and abilities
Start early. Children learn a lot of skills, including social ones, through play
Take things at a pace that feels natural and work towards encouraging your child to play with others
Be prepared to mirror skills you’d like your child to master. This might mean getting stuck in and playing too!
Find out about local groups and see if there are other parents you can talk to about their experiences. Facebook’s great for doing this too if you’re geographically isolated or have trouble getting out and about
Tips for parents with older children
Joining a social group or social skills group can make a real difference for a child or young person with autism. They can make friends in a safe environment with other people with similar problems while being supported by professionals who can help facilitate the learning of social skills.
There are groups across the UK run by charities and local authorities. You can search online for groups in your local area or start with the National Autistic Society’s directory or try the Sendirect website.
It may be that your child would be better served by joining a mainstream club or group, perhaps focused on a special interest. A local chess club, for example, or football team if that’s what they’re interested in. Do a little research and speak to other parents and to the people organising these activities to see what, if any, experience of autism they have and what adjustments could be made.
You’ll often find that, with a little extra support, a group like this is much more beneficial. This is particularly true for high-functioning children and young people who would not cope well in an autism-specific service where they might find difficulty identifying with lower-functioning children.
Remember, friendships are based on sharing some common ground or interest and it’s important to take this, along with individual personality traits, into account over and above your child’s autism.
Do I push my child to make friends if they don’t want to?
This is a tricky balance to get right, and it all depends on the nature of your child. It’s worth pointing out that some young people with autism really don’t like spending their time in the company of others. If it’s a huge challenge for your child to be around other people and they’re happy to be by themselves, this is fine. It’s about what will make them happy. However, if your child wants friends but struggles to make them – it’s worth gently nudging them in the right direction.
Tony Attwood is an academic and clinical psychologist who has written much about autism and specifically Asperger’s syndrome. This article by Tony looks at ‘profiling’ a child’s ability and desire to make and develop friendships and may prove useful in looking at your own child’s needs.
Temple Grandin writes about how she addressed some of her own social communication and cue-reading problems and offers advice on developing your own.
Finally, an unusual but uplifting story of how a young boy with autism learned social cues and how to make conversation with others thanks to an iPhone.