Most people find making new friends to be a bit challenging. There’s feelings of anxiety about approaching others and trying to introduce yourself. There’s concern about how you will be accepted or perceived. Think back to the last time you made a new friend. What was that like for you?
Now imagine, if you will, trying to complete this same task when you don’t understand the rules. It’s like you are suddenly dropped into a Cricket game and are expected to know how to play as well as understanding all the rules. And no one thinks to help you because you should just know how to play. The same is true for individuals with Autism. Most have a lot of trouble reading social cues, understanding body language and facial expressions, and have no idea how this game is played. This can be a major source of anxiety for both the child as well as his/her parents. This is where practice at home, in a safe familiar environment, can help.
Here are some tips to help. These tips are the most successful for verbal, high-functioning children with autism who are interested in trying to develop friendships. Most of the time, the lower functioning children are almost oblivious to the idea of making friends and they don’t seek it out.
Tip 1: What is a friend?
Start with the basics. Help your children understand what is a friend, what does a friend do, what does a friend look like, and how your child can be a good friend. Use simple language, be concrete, and check for understanding. And be sure to remind your child how they have to be a good friend back to the other person.
Example: “A friend is someone who will treat you nicely, play with, laugh with, and will try to make you feel better if you are not feeling good.”
Tip 2: Model a Conversation
Use scripts and visuals to help your child practice a good introduction and conversation with another person. Most of us can do this naturally, to varying degrees, without the need to practice. But a child with Autism needs the practice because this is very foreign to them. So help your child write their own script and then practice, practice, practice. Once you feel like the child understands the script, try it in a real-world setting, of your choosing. Make this part of your child’s schedule, hence it will decrease some of the anxiety. Also, carefully monitor the first few attempts and assist. But, be careful not to “do it for them”. Your child needs to do this on his or her own. Give them a chance to do so.
Tip 3: Common Interests
As we know, most friendships develop out of common interests. This will work for children with Autism as well. Which ever topic they enjoy, seek out opportunities for your child to engage in the activity with others. If your child loves reading, find a book club, etc. Try to find groups or clubs that include same age children as yours. This will also help to develop and reinforce some of the age-appropriate behaviors, as well.
Tip 4: Be Patient
Rome wasn’t built in a day and your child with Autism won’t necessarily make friends immediately. But be patient, it will happen. The main key here is to talk to your child about it and to practice. This should also help decrease any additional anxiety your child is feeling in social gatherings which could include: school, church, shopping, or any other public setting.
Good luck and happy friendship!
Author: Kelly Dale, School Psychologist