Helping your child with autism make friends can be a challenging experience for a parent. Kids on the autism spectrum, even those who experience milder symptoms, often struggle to make friends and establish relationships. Some people believe that children with autism always want to be alone, but that is not the case. Their isolation is often related to impairments in communication that make it challenging to notice social cues such as facial expressions, body language, hand gestures, and figures of speech.
Children with autism may engage in behaviors that others find unusual or awkward. These differences can make it difficult for an individual with autism to fit in. Your child’s repetitive and restrictive behavior can make it difficult for them to establish friendships and may increase the likelihood of bullying. This is especially true for children in middle school and high school. As a result, children on the spectrum may isolate or withdraw.
Neurotypical children often learn social skills organically in their natural environment through interacting and imitating the people around them. Children with autism may not naturally pick up these skills, but this does not mean they are not capable of learning to be social. While it may take some extra effort, children with autism make friends in unique ways and can develop lasting relationships.
Below are some tips to help your child with autism make friends and establish positive behaviors around relationships. By implementing these techniques, you can help your child with autism make friends more easily!
6 Tips to Help Your Child with Autism Make Friends!
1. Positively reinforce your child when socializing.
Sharing helps children with autism make friends. If you note that your child is sharing their toys, you might respond by saying, “You are doing such an amazing time sharing your toys! You make an awesome friend!” Encourage your child to build their social skills over time whenever possible. Praise will not only help to boost their confidence. It also builds upon their social skills by providing positive feedback.
If you are working with a behavioral agency, ask about their group classes, training, and any events that involve peers. If you get ABA therapy, make socialization a goal and reinforce it whenever possible. Having a provider present can help you better recognize opportune times to provide praise. Do not hesitate to ask your therapist for suggestions to get your child more involved! They may have some great strategies to help your child with autism make friends!
2. Invite a peer or family member over for a playdate.
Many children are more relaxed in their home environment, making them more able to focus on social interaction while experiencing less stress. Children with autism make friends more quickly when they are relaxed and comfortable! Try to create a focal point of planned activities centered around joint attention and cooperative play.
However, it is essential not to get discouraged immediately if your child seems disinterested in corresponding with other children. This can be the area that providers can help shape and improve. Making parallel play fun will be necessary for creating bonds between children, especially if they are young.
The idea here is to give your child as many opportunities as possible to communicate and share ideas. This can help them gain the skills and confidence needed to express themselves and advocate for their needs. It also helps them practice their linguistic and nonverbal communication skills. Additionally, socializing can prompt children to have more awareness of emotions and feelings. Over time you may be able to teach empathy and reflection. All these skills help children with autism make friends more effectively!
3. Go for it and get out!
One of the most critical things you can do for your child is to get them out and do things that require social interaction. The more opportunities they encounter, the more practice they get with these skills. Get out of the house and make running errands an adventure. Do not feel bad if communication starts to feel contrived. This is something that an ABA Registered Behavior Technician (RBT) will help the child expand.
For example, go out for ice cream but make it your child’s job to place their order and pay for the cone. If on a playdate, set specific goals that meet your child’s unique needs by utilizing their preferences. For example, if you know your child loves planes, bring toy planes along on playdates. Also, encourage sharing and turn-taking whenever possible.
Alternatively, these outings can be spontaneous. Just getting out of the house and heading to the park can expose your child to other kids. Places to explore may be museums, parks, farms, or community centers, to name a few. Just being around others increases learning opportunities. If your child is in class, try to find out if there is another student with similar interests. Upon finding this child, see if you can set up regular opportunities to meet up.
Any place where children congregate may be a space where your child can use their unique skills. Do not be discouraged if this is difficult at the beginning, and you constantly move the conversation along. It may take time, but with practice, your child will become more comfortable socializing, even if it is just through nonspeaking means. Children with autism make friends when social opportunities are less stressful and challenging.
Another example might be bringing your child to the library. While there, you may notice they do not tolerate sharing a favorite book. Reinforcing sharing and increasing the time spent doing so will lead to more tolerance and successful attempts to share. Praising this behavior is essential because it is something you want to see more often. Over time, intervene less and less to create distance between yourself and the situation. An ABA Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) can help you design an individualized plan with these goals at the forefront.
4. Encourage hobbies and passions!
Many children with autism have very restricted interests or only engage in preferred activities. For this reason, it is vital to introduce the child to new activities and objects. While it is essential to incorporate their passions and encourage learning, you want the child to feel confident trying new things and having novel experiences. You cannot expand on their interests if the child does not have new experiences.
Exposure is instrumental to developing and discovering potentially new preferences and hobbies. This can be accomplished systematically by providing access to a highly motivating activity after trying something new! An example would be having the child play on the unfamiliar swing set for ten minutes to access their favorite stuffed animals. Having more interest and topics to relate to children with autism makes friends.
5. Discuss the meaning of friendship.
Exploring friendships, feelings, and shared experiences can open a dialogue about the importance of relationships and what they bring to our lives. For example, talk about bullying if you think bullying might be a problem. Explain what a good friend is in literal and straightforward terms. Let your child know that friends are good to one another and offer lots of benefits. Explain the value of expressing interest in what their peers feel and say. Help your child with autism make friends they can trust and rely on.
6. Study facial expressions and body language.
Create visual supports or play games that discuss emotions and how they appear on the face and through the body. Your child might find feelings confusing, so it will be essential to expand their understanding. To do this, have your child label the emotion on the picture card. After they can successfully do that, show them a video of emotion, and discuss behaviors associated with the feelings. Studying these emotions can help your child notice nonverbal communication and recognize distress, frustration, anger, happiness, or sadness in other kids. Understanding social cues are instrumental in helping a child with autism make friends.
What are the consequences of not establishing friendships for kids with autism?
Unfortunately, many children with autism struggle to make friends and keep them. If this area of challenge is not addressed through treatment, it can carry into their teen years. A recent study reported that teenagers and adults with autism might suffer less from conditions like anxiety or depression if they cannot make friends. This shows that relationships make life better for those on the spectrum! That is why supporting and encouraging relationships as early as possible is essential.
ABA Therapy at ABA Centers of America
One of the main goals of ABA therapy is to improve social skills and help children with autism make friends. These neurodivergent individuals often fixate on preferred topics rather than the bigger picture. This can make it more challenging for them to connect and form relationships. They learn that connection is essential through more direct, concrete approaches like Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy.
ABA Centers of America understands the value of relationships and communication in a child’s life. By helping improve engagement, and joint attention in children, a good ABA program can help open their world to more opportunities for connection. Through opportunities for sharing and learning, your child can successfully interact with the world and the people around them. For more information on how ABA therapy can help your child form friendships, call 844-923-4222 for a free consultation or visit abacenters.com