Making friends is never easy, imagine what it’s like with autism

One of the things that causes me most anguish with my two boys on the autism spectrum is their struggle to make friends.

I have 4 boys and the other 2 have a wide circle of friends but sadly my two boys on the autism spectrum find it difficult to make and maintain friendships.

I came across some research that highlighted that 52% of children on the Autism spectrum have few or no friends at school.

This is a heart-breaking statistic, but rings true when you consider that an important part of making friendships comes from having age-appropriate social skills, which many children with Autism just do not have.

We have to step into their shoes and imagine how difficult it must be to establish friendships when they have trouble reading social cues such as body language, facial expressions and tone of voice. This is before overcoming negative perceptions of others, who do not understand issues such as meltdowns, social anxiety or simple things like hand flapping.

However, while the playground can be a daunting place for a child with autism,  a friend can be life-changing for anyone on the spectrum. Our children want to feel understood and included. It can put a smile on their face and give them something to look forward to each day.

Friendships can also boost your child’s self confidence and give them experience in managing their emotions, responding to the feelings of others and help them with cooperation and problem solving.

Our children want and need friendships, but they require our support to understand and learn the skills required for first making and then keeping friends. Skill such as:

  • initiating then maintaining a  conversation  
  • making sense of what other people are thinking and feeling
  • taking part in activities with other children and turn taking
  • understanding facial expressions and body language
  • adapting to new social situations
  • solving social problems, like how to sort out disagreements
  • finding and meeting people with similar interests.

It’s not easy and we are still on the road to helping our boys, but here are some hints and tips we have used and are still trying out that may help others.

What is a friend?

The first step has to be helping your child understand what a friend actually is. We all know that understanding abstract concepts can be challenging for young children, especially those on the autism spectrum. So, the key here is to keep it simple and as literal as you can. Use simple language and paint pictures such as friends are nice to you, friends make you feel better when you are sad, and friends are those you enjoy spending your time with

Helping them understand emotions

Social stories are useful to enable your children learn and can be used to help them understand facial expressions and body language. There are a number online, but you may want to make your own and talk your child through different emotions and facial expressions so they can identify them and begin to understand what they mean. Here are some examples. 

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Find out what activities your child enjoys

It’s a good idea to  find out what activities your child enjoys, which they can then share with other children and hopefully establish friendships. Once you know this, you can look for play groups or after school classes which your child could join. This may sound basic, but what children lie and are interested in does evolve over time change over time and it’s a good idea to ensure you don’t force your child into situations they won’t enjoy.

Invite potential friends to a playdate

Is there someone in your child’s class that they’d like to be friends with? You could ask your child’s teacher which children are showing interest in your child, or which children have similar interests. You can then invite them to your home or on an outing.

Use the resources in your community

We are lucky that we have a great youth club nearby which our youngest has just joined. Yes, he has his ups and downs, but other kids are starting to get to know him, and he will make friends over time. Our eldest attends a teenagers club every Tuesday run by a community youth outreach group and this has proved invaluable. We may have to drive 20 kilometres there and back, but these are the sacrifices we make for our children. They also offer support by Zoom, so why not check on any online groups out there. 

Keep looking, as we do for every opportunity to challenge your child, because if you don’t, they will struggle to make those vital friendship connections.  

Whatever you do, make sure your child has fun and is relaxed so that they seek out friendships.

Always remember, developing new skills takes time and social skills will continue to grow as your child gets older.

Finally keep practising communication skills with your children to help them develop age-appropriate social skills and in time they will develop the friendships they need.

Please feel free to share your experiences in the comments section below. I’d love to hear how you have helped your children develop friendships.