As this week is National Friendship Week, I thought I would use this topic to take a deeper look into autism and friendship, specifically some of the challenges many children and families experience. Of course, the first caveat is “if you know one child with autism, you know one child with autism.” Certainly, what I’m sharing does not apply to all, but hopefully I can offer some general considerations that you may find work for you.
Yes, some children with autism experience communication challenges and have trouble with social interactions. They may shy away from the simplest conversation, avoid eye contact, and appear to be “uninterested.” However, that does not mean that they don’t want to have friends. They may simply lack the social skills for developing friendships.
In reviewing a number of studies, results consistently show that compared to typically developing children, children with autism experienced significantly more loneliness than their typical peers, and that their quality of friendships was poorer, in terms of companionship, security, and help.
I know that in Ryan’s case, developing friendships was something that was important to me but not as important to him. He was most content in interacting with adults who were patient enough to take the time to listen to him and ask thoughtful questions. They were not bothered by his repetitions, nor by his desire to speak about his interests only. Looking back on his school years, I am hard-pressed to even identify one peer who was a friend, a sad commentary on his school career.
What can we do as parents and educators to meet this challenge?
- Be patient when the person speaks. It may take him/her longer to express a complete thought. Auditory processing difficulties are present in many children.
- Communicate clearly, in short sentences, with a reasonable pace and volume. If the child is non-verbal, use a picture or a communication board.
- Plan ahead by making play dates, if possible with typical peers.
- Investigate the Best Buddies program – bestbuddies.org. If there is not a chapter at your school, consider working with administration to start one. Ryan participated in ebuddies (ebuddies.org), and thoroughly engaged with his buddy via the computer.
- There are also numerous activities that you can do with your child to help improve his/her social skills: LINK. Ryan and I, during his preschool years, would have staring contests – Who could look at each other the longest without turning away?
During this National Friendship Week, think about the friendships that you and your child may have, and identify ways to strengthen them!