For some kids, making friends comes as naturally as breathing. For others, it’s a bit more challenging. Especially for many children with autism, who have difficulties knowing how to socialize.
It’s true that many kids with autism tend to isolate themselves from others by personal preference. My son will take his times during the day when he’s into a particular activity, and I know it’s best to let him have his personal time. Then again, who among us doesn’t like to take some time away on our own, right? But there are other times when I can tell he would like to join in on a group activity, but just doesn’t know how. Not knowing how to appropriately ask another child to play with you; not knowing or having the necessary language to keep up with the other kids during a game; or having the other children get upset when you can’t keep up with the rules, are all strong motivators for children with autism to walk away and isolate themselves. It’s probably much easier for them to isolate rather then hang around and feel out of place.
Finding ways for our children to learn how to socialize is a big deal for parents. We want them to have friends and feel included, too.
Having peer role models is always an excellent way for our kids to increase their socialization skills. I’ve found my son learns so much in the way of language and socialization skills from being around his siblings. Hanging out with cousins and family friends has been beneficial for him also. It is always so sweet to see how the other children around him are so eager to help once they are made aware of his challenges. Their capacity for compassion at such young ages is so heartwarming and reminds how naturally smart children really are, despite the fact that we adults think we have to teach them everything. Some knowledge, thankfully, is just beautifully inborn and doesn’t need to be taught.
Other ways that are helpful in teaching social skills are behavior therapy, playdates and peer buddy groups.
Behavior therapy has been an effective source of social skills training for many children, and with the California laws AB 88 and SB946 (newest law) in effect, hopefully more parents can attain behavior therapy through health insurance as needed. Not only can the behavior therapist be instrumental in helping the child with increasing social skills, but many behavior therapy clinics/centers offer social playgroups that children can participate in with their peers.
Organizing playdates with classmates is a great opportunity for socialization. My son has classmates we schedule playdates with during weekends or school breaks. Some of his classmates have siblings who also come along, and I bring all of my children too, so they can play together as a big group, learning from each other as they go.
A peer buddy program at school is another wonderful way for our children to learn. Having children from the general education classrooms (be they the same age or in higher grade levels) come into the special education classroom to help with reading, math, art, or science activities is an avenue by which all of the children can learn from each other. When his teacher told me several of the general education students were so motivated to volunteer for the peer buddy program, it brought tears to my eyes.
Yes, for children with autism, making friends has it’s challenges. But, like so many children have shown me, when we all have compassion and make a little effort, it can be accomplished. It gets quite a bit more challenging for these kids in the teenage years, I’m told, and my heart goes out to them. My son will be in that age group soon enough, so I am hoping with a little more creativity and a whole lot more compassion, we can find effective ways to be more helpful to teenagers with autism as well. I’m sure we can do it.