Childhood friendship is a busy highway with lots of maneuvering and plenty of traffic, but for children with autism it is often an isolated one-way street. If a child with autism has difficulty relating to his peers, then find ways to have his peers relate to him.
Here are five tips on how to help develop friendships for your child with autism.
1) If it is feasible, and you have the choice or opportunity, place your child in a mainstreamed program in elementary school. You, your therapists and medical doctors, will have the best sense of how your child will do in a mainstream or inclusion classroom. Discuss the possibilities with the school's special ed department, and if you think your child has the slightest chance of succeeding in such an environment, provide him with the opportunity. Children with autism often mirror the behavior of those around them, and mirroring the behavior of the "typical" relationships he sees in his mainstreamed class are as important as the academic lessons to be learned.
2) Make sure the children in your child's potential friendship pool are familiar with what autism is. It is always most effective when the autistic child's parent or sibling come to the class and explain why little Emily is the way she is. These young peers of your child are more interested in Emily than you think, and their innate curiousity will allow them to quickly absorb the needs that Emily has. Turn your daughter's issues into plusses for the other children, like her obsession with anime characters might become an enjoyable class project. Draw the typical students into your daughter's world.
Take their questions, which will no doubt include "Can you catch autism?" You'll be amazed by what they'll want to know. Show the children that your child is only as different as the typical kids are from each other. It's OK for them to be amused at some of the odd things your child does, as long as it is appreciative amusement and not hurtful. If your child is functioning at a high enough level to be in a typical classroom, the odds are that she will end up performing actions for her classmates that she knows will get a positive reaction. And as isolated as she might be at times, she will begin to model her behavior after theirs.
3) Invite your child's classmates to your home. If your child won't always relate to his or her classmates, the typical students will still try to relate and bond with your child, and that is good for all the kids involved. If you're having a home playdate, don't be so anxious about them playing together for the entire time. Even typical children, at young ages, enjoy parallel play, and are off on their own. Each time the children get together, the connection gets stronger, and the other child will return to school and talk about her experience at your child's house, and the toys she played with or the videos she watched or the cookies she ate, and it will make the experience more important to the typical child--they did something special that the other kids haven't yet done. Don't be surprised if your child becomes the classroom celebrity, and you start getting a rush of invitations, especially if you have a sensory room, a closet full of videos your child is obsessed with, unique autism-friendly toys or special equipment like a trampoline or swing, that help stimulate your child and will appeal to his classmates. When the classmate returns to school and says, "You won't believe all the cool things at Billy's house," you will have a line of kids wanting to be Billy's friend. Have the unique therapeutic or obsessive things your child needs in his daily life, whether it's his dinosaur collection, his favorite soft shirt or even his therapist or para, become something special to his classmates. The children will become invested in your child's wellbeing.
There should always be supervision of playdates so that your child can be directed--and redirected--throughout. Playdates should not be long. Short and sweet is the key here, especially at the start of this friendship journey. Have fun activities planned and treats served. There's nothing like bribing a child into a friendship at the start--everyone is guilty of it. If it's good enough to do with your typical children, and even yourself, it's good enough to do to help your autistic child. When your child's classmate goes home and says, "Billy's mom gave me the best cupcakes," you know you have a foundation to expand that into "I want to see Billy again, because it's fun to be with him."
4) Don't underestimate the empathy of your child's peers. Many of your child's classmates will be much more nurturing than you imagined, and you will find that several will stand out as protectors of your child. Once the other children realize that your child has special needs, they will help in their own way to provide assistance. If there is a fundraiser or walk for autism, engage the class. They will love to be involved, it will teach them great lessons, it will provide them further insight into autism and it will bond them closer with your child, who they will be excited about supporting.
5) Therapy and early intervention for your child are key. While your child is observing, learning and navigating the world of social interaction, her therapist will help her with the specifics. If Patty from school has shown that she wants to play with your child, the therapist will help guide your child and script through the specifics surrounding Patty and your child's potential interaction. These are lessons you can learn and employ as well.
Getting an autism spectrum diagnosis no longer means your child will live a life of isolation. Many children on the spectrum want friends, but just don't know how to make or keep them. These tips will help.
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