One of the hallmarks of autism is struggling in social situations. In children, this can lead to feelings of social anxiety and depression. Symptoms of autism vary, but they often manifest as trouble reading social cues like body language, verbal intonation and facial expression. As put by Claire Sainsbury in her book Martian in the Playground: Understanding The Schoolchild With Asperger's Syndrome, “It's as if everybody is playing some complicated game and I am the only one who hasn't been told the rules.”
This fact goes far to explain the saddening reality that approximately 52 percent of kids with autism spectrum disorder don’t have many friends at school. Likewise, this is an enormously common problem that autistic children face. However, if you find yourself in this situation with your child, don’t panic - there are steps you can take to help your child make friends!
Here are steps you can take to help your autistic child make friends.
1. Help your child understand what a "friend" is
In certain cases, your autistic child may not actually be grasping the concept of a friend. Without the backbone of this idea, it will be almost impossible for them to form friendships, especially independently. So, use clear, plain language when explaining this surprisingly vague and abstract concept. You can ask questions like “do you like it when people are kind to you?” to clarify what a friend is, and “do you like it when people call you names” to clarify what a friend isn’t.
2. Practise socialising
Children with autism struggle to pick up and implement new skills. Don’t expect an overnight transformation – your hopes will be dashed. Crucially, make sure they practise aspects of friendship with you. You are who they feel most comfortable with, so you are the best person to coach them.
Repeatedly train, asking and responding to questions, demonstrating sharing with toys and food, and playing games with them. Once they become comfortable being friendly with you, you can get them to practise with other close relatives, be that siblings, cousins, uncles or aunts.
3. Use visual aids
Many autistic children learn better when they can read or see what they should do. So, you could try using a whiteboard to draw or write out things they should have in mind or practise. You can even write out a typical conversation they could share with their peers when practising friendship with your child.
4. Develop their theory of mind
One psychological finding regarding autism concerns something called theory of mind. Without getting into the details, theory of mind is the knowledge that other people have minds, with their own emotions, aims, memories and so on. Many autistic children struggle to get a read of someone else’s mind. Consequently, they face inner conflict about what is going on in a conversation and often behave inappropriately because they have misinterpreted the other person.
They may also have difficulty accepting that others have different opinions to them. Depending on the severity of the problem, you could either start extremely abstract – e.g., showing them a photo of their sibling and asking what makes them different from the child themself. Or more concretely, you could straightforwardly encourage them to recognise that people simply have different opinions and that it’s okay to disagree.
5. Make the home fun and safe
Simply put, the more stressed you appear about this issue, the more stressed your child will become. Although you have relatively little control over the dynamics of the playground, you have a great deal of control over the dynamics of your home. Make learning social skills enjoyable and it will breed confidence in your child, spurring them on to make friends independently.
Friendships and being part of a community is essential to emotional wellbeing. So take these steps to help your child shine in social situations!