How to Help Your Autistic Child Make Friends: 10 Strategies That Worked for My Son and Me
Like Many Parents of Autistic Kids, I Wondered: Would My Child Ever Have a Friend?
Like so many parents of autistic children, I worried about my son's future:
- Would he be able to attend regular school?
- Would he be able to play on sports teams and join Boy Scouts?
- Would he one day be able to get a job, have a wife, and start a family?
But the question that weighed heaviest on my mind and in my heart was: Would he ever have a friend?
Your Child's Flat Affect Can Make Bonding Difficult
I knew there was something not quite right with my little boy. But, as a first-time mom at age 35—so thrilled to have a child of my own after years of teaching other people's— I pushed it aside, retreating to denial mode. Having worked with young children for years, I felt confident that I had this parenting gig in the bag, and I didn't want needless worry to ruin it.
Yet, my enthusiasm and optimism for motherhood soon got replaced by exhaustion and frustration. I wasn't just experiencing the typical wariness that comes from not getting enough sleep, stressing over a crying infant, or changing yet another soiled diaper. I was exerting so much energy and enthusiasm with my boy—speaking in a high-pitched voice, playing peek-a-boo, tickling his toes, singing him silly songs, reading him books—but got no smiles, giggles, or squeals of delight in return.
His lack of responsiveness to my attempts at bonding were making me feel like a bad mother. Without yet realizing it, I was in the early stages of experiencing what it's like as the parent of an autistic child. It was the beginning of our journey as I wondered whether my son and I would ever form a close bond and whether he'd ever be capable of making a friend.
What Is "Flat Affect?"
Some children with autism have “flat affect,” a lack of emotion characterized by little or no facial expression, vocal inflection, and expressive gestures. They may not react at all to situations that elicit strong emotions in others.
Be Mindful of Your Child's Uniqueness and Need for Alone Time
My son's flat affect made me feel like a performer bombing in front of an unappreciative crowd. He preferred playing alone with his trains—walking around and around the table for hours on end, guiding his Thomas the Tank Engine along the track. Our lives were becoming more isolated, but I was the only one who seemed to care.
I had hosted a weekly play group at our home for years—ever since the children were 6-months-old. As they grew into toddlers and then preschoolers, the kids began to interact more with one another. They were meeting at one another's houses for play dates. Moms and kids were getting together in the park for picnics, at the pool for swimming, and at the ice cream parlor for treats. But no invitations came our way.
The preschool co-op my son attended three mornings a week wasn't the cure-all that I had so desperately wanted. While I adored his teacher and the hubbub of activity, I was now convinced it wasn't a good fit for my son with his sensitivites to noise, light, and touch. He seemed overwhelmed there and wasn't making friends.
Because autism is a spectrum disorder—meaning it affects each child differently—I became convinced that I needed to developed a unique plan to fit my child's unique needs. My son is now a teenager—thriving at public school—and enjoying a strong social life with a small group of buddies. When he goes out to meet his friends, I stop and reflect on a time in my life when I didn't think that would ever happen. I don't ever take it for granted like most parents do. Helping my child build friendships took a lot of time and effort, but it was so worth it.
Why Is Autism Called a “Spectrum Disorder?”
A spectrum disorder refers to a group of disorders with similar characteristics but wide-ranging intensity. One person may have mild symptoms while another has severe ones. The three different types of autism spectrum disorders are 1. “classic" autism 2. Asperger syndrome and 3. Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDDNOS).
10 Strategies for Helping Your Child With Autism Make Friends
1. Focus on Quality of Friendships, Not Quantity
Even if your child has only one buddy, this is a triumph and reason to celebrate. Foster that relationship in any way you can. My son had only one buddy for many years, but it became a strong, meaningful friendship that built the foundation for future relationships. It showed him that friendships were fun and that was HUGE.
2. Appreciate the Enormous Value of Play Dates
Setting up regular one-on-one play dates between my son and a friend was critical for promoting his social skills. These play dates proved far more beneficial to establishing relationships than preschool or our weekly play group—neither of which resulted in friendships.
3. Don't Get Discouraged If Parents Don't Reciprocate
When you have a child with autism, you must develop a thick skin and swallow your pride. Keep inviting friends over to your house without ever expecting your child to get invited to theirs. Just keep your goal in mind—helping your child make friends— and don't let your hurt feelings get in the way.
4. Keep Your Friends and Your Child's Friends Separate
For convenience sake, some parents want their friends' children to become friends with their children. This rarely works—whether your child has autism or not. Let your child choose his own friends—kids who share his interests and accept him for who he is.
5. Don't Compare Your Child to You as a Kid
Let go of your preconceived ideas of how your child would be. Just because you were a social butterfly as a kid, doesn't mean your child will be the same. Your child probably doesn't get as much pleasure from interacting with others as you did. He may find it draining. Big noisy events such as birthday parties and holiday gatherings may cause him stress. Let him go at his own pace.
6. Make a Plan for Play Dates
Before the buddy comes to your house, decide with your child what they'll do together. The best activities are those that demand cooperation and communication: building with big wooden blocks, creating with Legos, playing with Hot Wheels outside in the dirt or inside on some track, or making things with play-dough.
7. Have Fun Games for Play Dates that Stimulate Conversation
Capitalize on each play date by having fun games for the kids to play. Explain to your child that play dates are technology-free time. For younger children, good games have simple rules, work well with two players, and don't need adult intervention. Favorites include: Don't Break the Ice, Hi-Ho Cheerio, Pop-Up Pirate, and Don't Spill the Beans (these are all great for promoting fine motor skills, too). For older children, good games involve conversation, strategy, and problem-solving. Favorites include: Monopoly, Blokus, Clue, Checkers, Battleship, and Risk.
8. Don't Panic If Your Child and His Friend Engage in Parallel Play During the Play Date
Remember your child may need a break from the intense social interaction, finding it overwhelming. Don't worry about it. Intervene if his buddy and him are not getting back together to play after 15 minutes. Keep play dates no longer than 2 hours because they can get exhausting for your child.
9. Help Your Child Understand Non-Verbal Communication
Teach your child how people communicate with each other in ways other than mere words: facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. Remind him about the importance of eye contact but don't nag.
10. Read – Read – Read
Read to your each day and talk about the characters in the story. Ask questions about them: How is that character feeling? Why does he feel that way? Would you feel the same? Help your child make connections between his life and the characters in the book.
I No Longer Felt Alone After Reading This Beautiful Book Written by Parents of an Autistic Son
I love this book written by a mom and dad of an autistic child. As a wife, it was so valuable for me to hear what a father thinks and feels. My husband didn't say much, but I knew he was hurting. Most parents of autistic kids can identify with the title. We work long and hard for our children to do things that other parents take for granted—looking into our eyes, holding our hands, saying "I love you." We learn to celebrate the little things and, when our youngster makes a friend, our hearts fill with joy.
Having a child with autism has defined my life. I met many kind and knowledgeable professionals along the way who helped me and my son, and I'll be forever grateful for their support. I also met some jerks—bureaucrats who just went through the motions, filled out the necessary paper work, and collected a paycheck. My son and I stood right in front of them but were never seen.
I realized early on that it was my story to write. I had to lead the way because nobody knew my son as well as I did. Nobody wanted more for him than I did. Nobody wanted him to get out of his own world and step into this one more than I did. Nobody wanted him to have friends more than I did. He has that now and it was worth all the time and effort.
© 2016 McKenna Meyers