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Particularly for children on the autism spectrum, learning how to build friendships can be difficult. For most children, the foundation for a friendship is common experience and common interests. Yet children on the autism spectrum may appear unaware or uninterested in peers, and their interests may be quite unusual. They may react unexpectedly when approached by a peer, which over time may result in peers not engaging with them.
Most likely, your child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) will contain goals and strategies to assist your child in developing social skills. These goals may relate to play (sharing, taking turns, winning and losing, or learning the basics of childhood games, for example) or how to initiate and/or respond to conversation. Eye contact and personal space concepts may need to be taught and practiced.
Yet for most school children, much social learning happens outside the school environment, for example, at children’s parties and during play dates. This allows you the parent to be involved in social learning, and makes it all the more important for you to communicate with your child’s teachers so that you can reinforce what is being practiced at school.
Parents of preschool and elementary-age children frequently invite the entire class to birthday parties. This usually means that parties are busy, loud, and unpredictable – characteristics which may make attending the party difficult for a child on the autism spectrum. Nonetheless, attending the party – if even for a short time – can be a valuable learning experience for your child. Prepare your child ahead of time with a Social Story™, and plan to get to the party early. Being early allows your child to get used to the environment before it gets more hectic. If the party is held at a location that is familiar to your child, make sure your child knows that activities may be different on this occasion because it is a birthday party. Also, many young children (not just those on the autism spectrum) have difficulty with the idea of other children receiving gifts (and not them). Explain the concept of gift giving in your Social Story™. Finally, recognize that it is ok to leave the party early.
Unlike parties, play dates are usually one-on-one. Parents of children on the autism spectrum may be hesitant to send their child to a play date at someone else’s home. If your child is invited to a play date, ask if it is ok for you to attend as well. You can explain that your child may be uneasy in a new environment and would feel more comfortable with you there. Alternatively, invite the child to your house.
Hosting play dates at your home allows you the opportunity to structure the time and control how long the play date lasts. Structuring the play date around one or two activities is a good way to make the time more predictable for your child. For example, baking cookies together or building a Lego® tower is a good way to have fun while working on important skills like sharing and turn taking. If your child has special toys that he or she may have trouble sharing, consider putting them away until after the play date.
Even if your child does not seem to want a play date, talk with your child’s teacher about who might be a good match for your child. Perhaps there is a schoolmate who shares a special interest of your child. If not, your child’s teacher can help you identify a child who has shown an interest in your child at school and who is known to be caring, tolerant, and kind.
Though it can be a lot of work, helping to foster your child’s friendships will enable him or her to practice critical social skills that set the foundation for being able to deal with more complicated social relationships as your child gets older.