Friendships and social interactions are important to children. It gives them a sense of belonging, teaches valuable social skills and enables them to have fun playing with other children. However, making friends can be tricky for some children, especially if they have an autism diagnosis, a condition often characterised by having difficulties with building and maintaining social skills. So, how can you help your autistic child to make friends?
Autistic children will vary enormously in their desire to make friends and in their ability to learn the necessary skills to interact with other children, including how long it takes for them to progress. Remember that your child is an individual and is on their own journey, so try not to compare how well your child makes friends to other autistic children.
So here's some top tips on how parents can help. Many of the following ideas can be adapted for the level that your child is currently working at.
1. Teach them concrete ideas to use in play
Autistic children often find it easier to learn and follow a specific rule relating to their behaviour, this being more concrete and less abstract. You can help your child to learn more concrete rules that relate to friendships and interactions, before they are in the situation with other children. For example, help them to develop turn taking skills playing a game with you, which children eventually use as turn taking in conversations. Show them what the ‘rule’ is; ‘you have a turn and then the other person has a turn and you keep going until the game is finished’. This can also progress to taking turns in a group, perhaps having a specific object or toy, e.g. the ‘talking bear’ that you have to be holding for it to be your turn to speak.
2. Help them understand what friendship is
Talk to your child about what a friend is, including how they behave towards one another or perhaps how they shouldn’t behave. This could be that friends enjoy playing together, or for older children, friends can support each other when they are sad or having a hard time. Where possible, give concrete examples to help your child understand e.g. ‘if your friend is crying, you can ask them what is wrong’. It can also involve talking about what friends do not do, for example ‘if someone pushes you over in the playground, this isn’t something that friends do’.
3. Explain emotions and other people's perspectives
Autistic can sometimes find it difficult to recognise other people’s emotions, how this shows what the other person is thinking and feeling, and which words to use to describe different emotions. Often ‘happy’ ‘sad’ and ‘angry’ are fairly easily learned, but more complex emotions such as ‘worried’ or ‘disappointed’ are more difficult to learn. This is a skill you can work on with your child outside of their interactions with other people. Look at people’s facial expressions in photos or in cartoons and talk about what emotion they may be feeling. Describe how emotions feel in your body, and name the emotion that is felt. Talk about what situation may have led up to you feeling that way, for example, ‘the football match I was looking forward to has been cancelled because of the weather, so I am feeling disappointed’. Support your child to understand how one person’s behaviour affects another person’s feelings e.g. ‘this person said they didn’t like her new hairstyle, so this girl now feels upset’.
4. Teach appropriate phrases to help them make friends
You can talk to your child about what words and phrases we can use to speak to our friends when we want to play with them, essentially developing a script they can use to start and maintain an interaction. For example, if you want to ask a friend to play, we can say ‘Please can I play too?’ or ‘Would you like to play Lego with me?’ This can also involve ending a play session appropriately e.g. ‘I have to go now. See you later’. You can practice role-plays at home, perhaps with siblings or other family members, so that your child can try using these words and phrases first before trying it with other children.
5. Practice for when things don't go to plan
Autistic can sometimes be described as 'inflexible' in their thinking and therefore find it difficult if things don’t turn out how they expect them to. This includes when other people don’t respond how your child expects, perhaps saying no to playing with them, or not including them in an activity with a group of friends. Problem solve these scenarios with your child, for example if the answer the child gives is not the expected answer, so that they have a clear alternative response.
6. Use visual aids
Autistic children often benefit from visual representations to help them learn and understand. Using pictures with thought or speech bubbles can help to show your child what those people are thinking about, in different scenarios. If your child already uses symbols, they can have a symbol that represents asking for help within a play interaction with a friend, giving it to you when they need help to resolve an issue. When learning about different emotions, you can colour code the emotions so that the child knows what ‘type’ of emotion it is e.g. red would show feeling angry, whereas green would show feeling calm.
7. Take it one step at a time
Try to make each step a positive one for your child, and not rush them too quickly. Perhaps start with only one child in a quiet environment, and keep the play time short so as not to overwhelm them. Start with children who share similar interests as your child, or who your child is already familiar with. Gradually build up the number of children involved, the noise level and how long they play for at a pace that your child can cope with. Keep a close eye on your child’s need to regulate and whether an interaction or set up is getting too much for them. Expect them to feel quite tired afterwards and maybe a bit grumpy!
8. Help your child to 'generalise'
Once your child has started to develop their ability to socialise and make friends, help them to 'generalise' this to other situations and with a variety of different people. Autistic children can find it hard to generalise skills, so they may become very skilled at interacting with one specific person in a certain situation, but struggle elsewhere. Gradually introducing your child to different people, and practicing their skills in different environments can help them to generalise. Remember to gradually do this at your child’s pace, so that they don’t feel overwhelmed.
9. Keep it fun!
Ultimately, making friends and interacting with others needs to be a fun activity for your child, especially if they find social skills difficult. If it is fun they will want to engage in the activity more, whereas if we make it too difficult and upsetting they will not want to take part.
10. Know when to seek support
If you're worried your child is struggling with their friendships, then seek help. This could be by speaking to their teacher and asking them to set up small group sessions that model friendship, or it may be by seeking the help of a speech and language therapist who can help them with their social communication skills.
Whatever stage your child is at, whether just starting to play alongside other children, developing the words and phrases necessary to ask a friend to play with them, or understanding how what they say to someone can impact others, this is a good place for them to be.
Your child is a unique individual and will learn in their own time and in their own way. Be patient and kind to yourself. Things might not go smoothly the first time you try, But with perseverance and love, you can help your autistic child enjoy being with other children and making lasting friendships.