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How Parents Can Help Their Child With Autism Make Friends

When her son got diagnosed with autism, Ms. Meyers became determined to promote his social skills and help him make a few quality friends.

Some children with autism find it difficult to make friends in a large group setting such as school. One-on-one playdates let kids with similar interests develop meaningful bonds.

Some children with autism find it difficult to make friends in a large group setting such as school. One-on-one playdates let kids with similar interests develop meaningful bonds.

8 Strategies for Helping A Child With Autism Make Friends

  1. Focus on quality, not quantity
  2. Appreciate the value of playdates
  3. Play board games that stimulate conversation
  4. Don't get discouraged when other parents don't reciprocate
  5. Keep your friends and your child's friends separate
  6. Don't compare your child to how you were as a kid
  7. Teach your child about nonverbal communication
  8. Read – read – read!

Will My Child With Autism Ever Have a Friend?

Like other parents who have children with autism, I suffered through many sleepless nights worrying about my son's unclear future. Dark, disquieted questions would race through my mind, keeping me awake:

  • 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 land a job, find a wife, and start a family?

Yet, the question that blackened my thoughts and weighed heaviest on my heart was: Would he ever be able to make a friend? By having realistic expectations, setting aside my ego, and making a game plan, I discovered that the answer was an absolute yes!

My son is now a teenager—thriving at public high 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 never take it for granted like other parents do. Helping him build friendships took a lot of time, patience, and effort, but it was so worth it.

1. Focus on Quality, Not Quantity

Even if your child has just one buddy, this is a reason to celebrate and be grateful. Foster that relationship in any way you can. My son had only one pal for many years, but that friendship built the foundation for future ones. It showed him that other kids were fun and that was hugely consequential.

Dr. Cindy Ariel, a psychologist who counsels parents with children on the autism spectrum, tells them to refrain from comparing their childhood experiences to their youngster’s. Most likely, their kid will not be as popular or as social as they were. Being around their peers will probably be less invigorating and more draining for their child than what they had known. Dr. Ariel says that this shouldn’t be a cause for concern or make them sad that their child lacks a big posse of pals. She explains, "Many people are fine with only one or two close friends and feel much more comfortable living this way."

2. Appreciate the Value of Playdates

When my son was a preschooler, setting up regular playdates for him with a carefully chosen friend was critical for promoting his social skills. It required a lot of effort on my part but was well worth it. These one-on-one get-togethers helped him form close connections that weren't being made in large groups at preschool and playgroup.

Sylvia Ford, an early childhood consultant, says "the parent needs to make an investment in the playdate for it to succeed." She advises moms and dads to plan activities in advance so the children’s time together is optimized. Whether it's whipping up a batch of play dough, preparing a craft for them to make, putting toys in the sandbox, or simply pulling out blocks and Hot Wheels from the closet, it's beneficial to have a game plan.

This excellent video offers practical advice for how to host a successful playdate when one child has autism and the other doesn't.

3. Encourage Games That Stimulate Conversation

Like many children on the autism spectrum, my son would have played computer games each day for hours if I had allowed it. Technology was a world where he felt safe, comfortable, and competent. In limited amounts, his intervals on the computer were a positive thing, especially after a long day at school when he was drained from social interaction and needed some solitary downtime. However, to fully optimize his playdates, I enforced a strict rule (always stated in advance) that there would be no screens when a friend was at our home.

Instead, this precious time was set aside with the goal of improving my son's communication abilities as well as his social skills. Having him and his buddy play board games was an excellent way to achieve these aims. When they were preschoolers and kindergartners, they needed games with simple rules that required little or no reading and worked well with two players. Favorites included: 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 as well). When he and his buddies were in elementary school, good games involved conversation, strategy, and problem-solving. Favorites included: Monopoly, Blokus, Clue, Checkers, Battleship, and Risk.

4. Don't Get Discouraged When Other Parents Don't Reciprocate

When you have a child with autism, you must develop a thick skin and not let your ego keep you from doing what's best for them. For years, I invited the same boys over for playdates while their parents never invited my son to their homes. I assumed that they weren't reciprocating because my child had autism. Holding this belief made me sad and resentful. It wasn't until the same thing happened with my younger son (who doesn’t have autism) that I realized some moms and dads simply don't host playdates.

Keep inviting friends over to your house without ever expecting your child to get invited to theirs. Stay laser focused on your goal to help your child make buddies. Don't let your hurt feelings get in the way of doing what’s beneficial for your kid.

5. Keep Your Friends and Your Child's Friends Separate

Because it’s convenient, some parents make the critical mistake of trying to turn the children of their friends into their youngster’s friends. However, this is rarely successful, whether the child has autism or not. Instead, it’s important to let a kid choose their own buddies—those who share similar interests and enjoy the same activities.

This doesn’t mean, though, that a child on the spectrum is best paired with another youngster on the spectrum. In her article "Do People With Autism Connect Best With Each Other?" Lisa Jo Rudy says that it just depends. If they have similar passions, it might be a match made in heaven. However, if one is an ardent fan of Star Wars and the other is devoted to dinosaurs, it could be an utter disaster.

6. Don't Compare Your Child to You as a Kid

Let go of any preconceived notions of how your child should be based on how you were as a kid. If you were a social butterfly, for example, your child with autism probably won’t be. Most likely, they’ll never get as much pleasure from interacting with others as you did. They may, in fact, find it frustrating and draining. Big noisy events such as birthday parties and holiday gatherings may cause them undue stress. Before they have a meltdown, look for the warning signs that they’ve had enough (agitation, disinterest, tiredness) and remove them from the situation.

Don't panic if your child and their friend engage in some parallel play (playing alongside one another but not with one another) during their get-togethers. Remember that your youngster may need a break from the social interaction because they find it overwhelming. Intervene if they aren’t back together after 15 minutes by suggesting an activity for them to do together. Make playdates no longer than two hours since they can be exhausting for your kid.

7. Teach Your Child About Nonverbal Communication

Some children with autism struggle mightily with social communication. They're not plugged into the reality that people convey their thoughts and feelings in ways other than words. Therefore, they often miss out on nonverbal cues that get conveyed through someone’s facial expressions, body language, hand gestures, posture, eye contact, and tone of voice.

Playdates with just two children allow for teachable moments when a parent can point out examples of nonverbal communication. For example, they can say: Look at his face. His scowling on you. That means he's mad...Look at her signaling for you to come. She wants to play with you in the sandbox...He's stomping his feet. That means that he's upset about losing the game.

Mark Hutten, a psychologist and parent coach, encourages moms and dads to teach their autistic kids about nonverbal communication in a clear and direct way. He writes, "Good communication is the foundation of any successful relationship—and nonverbal communication speaks the loudest... The ability to understand and use nonverbal communication is a powerful tool that can help children connect with others, express what they really mean, and build better relationships."

8. Read – Read – Read

Reading to your child every day (autistic or not) is a powerful way to build their vocabulary, increase their comprehension, and promote meaningful conversations. Moreover, a book’s characters provide a springboard to talk about emotions, which is highly beneficial for children with autism. Storytime at preschool and the library can't compare to what parents can offer one-on-one at home when reading with their youngster in bed or outside under a tree.

Unlike a teacher and librarian who need to hold the attention of a large group, moms and dads have the marked advantage of being able to stop reading to discuss the plot and ask questions. For example, they might say: What is that character feeling? Would you feel the same? What would you do in that situation? What do you think will happen next in the story? Why do you think that?

Parents also have the distinct advantage of being able to select books that speak to their youngster's unique interests. When my son was little, we had a whole shelf of stories just about trains. With more children getting diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, there are now numerous books that address their experiences.

In this video, Dr. Grant discusses the benefits of "biblio therapy," using books as a tool to help children with autism and without to understand one another.

What do you think?

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: Did you ever try any holistic treatments or diets for your autistic child?

Answer: While I knew a lot of parents who swore that changing diets dramatically helped their autistic kids (removing sugar, gluten, and artificial ingredients, etc.), I never did that with my son. He was a finicky eater, and I didn't want to limit his food choices further. Plus, his pediatrician advised against it, believing there wasn't a need.

However, when my son was diagnosed at 4 with Sensory Integration Dysfunction (which often goes hand-in-hand with autism but not always), he started weekly sessions with an occupational therapist who immediately put him on a “sensory diet.” A sensory diet doesn't involve food but activities that are designed especially to meet the needs of a particular child with sensory issues.

My son, for instance, was weak and floppy with low muscle tone. He couldn't peddle a tricycle on the track at preschool, pump a swing, or climb a tree. His fine motor skills were poor, so he couldn't color without discomfort or hold scissors correctly. He was hyper-sensitive to touch. He didn't like the feel of sand on his skin, so he avoided the preschool's sandbox. He was irritated by the tags on his shirts, so I cut them off. He screamed bloody murder whenever someone tried to cut his hair, so we stayed away from barbers.

His occupational therapist came up with a whole “menu” of activities to help my son lead a life where he wasn't so agitated, afraid, and unable to participate. She did them with him at our weekly sessions while I watched, and then I continued at home. To help him become more tolerant of tactile experiences, she had him drive Hot Wheels through mounds of shaving cream, make drawings in chocolate pudding, and create sculptures with play-dough. To strengthen his hand and finger muscles, she had him pull duct tape off the floor, pick up cotton balls with tweezers and chopsticks, peel and place stickers, and play games such as "Don't Break the Ice," "Operation," and "Don't Spill the Beans." To help with his vestibular system (movement and balance), she had him jump on a mini-trampoline, pull a wagon, walk on a balance beam, and rock in a rocking chair.

Without a doubt, having a caring and competent occupational therapist was the most important thing I did to help my son (a fantastic speech therapist was another asset). My pediatrician's knowledge of autism was limited (I'm sure it's grown since then), but my son's OT was a wealth of information.

Because she had a teenage son with Asperger's, we connected on an emotional mom-to-mom level as well. Going to a support group with parents of autistic kids was not at all helpful to me (just stressful) since autism is a spectrum disorder and each child is affected differently. I believe parents should work with a professional one-on-one and be wary of the misinformation on the internet. Parents of autistic kids are desperate for cures (I know I was), but autism isn't something that can be fixed. Our children can improve greatly, though, with early intervention services and a sensory diet. "The Out-of-Sync Child Has Fun: Activities for Kids with Sensory Integration Dysfunction" by Carol Stock Kranowitz was an invaluable resource for me.

Question: My son is just three, and diagnosed with ASD. How can I help him make friends or become more social?

Answer: Thanks so much for your question about autism, social skills, and making friends. Before I answer it, I want to offer my support to you, mom-to-mom, and encourage you to take good care of yourself during this journey. Please learn from my mistakes. I became too focused on trying to “cure” my son and lost sight of the big picture. I didn't pay enough attention to my marriage, my younger son and, most of all, my own mental, physical, and emotional well-being. So please make yourself a priority and surround yourself with caring people.

With that being said, I totally understand how important it is that your son develops social skills and makes friends. At three years of age, however, all children (autistic or not) still engage in parallel play, meaning they play near one another but don't necessarily interact with one another. As a former preschool teacher, I saw this all the time with that age group. Kids, for example, would sit in the sandbox, each one happily doing their own thing and not even being aware of those around them. Then, when they got to be 4 and 5, they began to realize that those were other human beings—great sources of fun, adventure, and friendship. So, if your 3-year-old seems disinterested in other kids at this point, it's no cause for alarm.

When my son was 3, we started building the foundation for successful social skills and solid friendships by taking him to speech therapy twice a week. Like many kids with autism, he needed help with articulation (pronouncing his words correctly) and social communication (making eye contact, reading facial expressions, and understanding body language). If he were to have friendships in the future, he needed first to develop these skills so others could understand him and others could understand him. When I was teaching preschool, I dealt with autistic children who hadn't received speech therapy, and it was extremely frustrating for everyone involved. Early intervention services are so important and not getting speech therapy during the younger years is definitely a missed opportunity.

As I mentioned in my article, the co-op preschool that my son attended was fantastic but not a good fit for him. There was too much going on—too many sights, sounds, touches, and smells--for him to absorb. A wrote a piece that you might find helpful that describes other preschool options. It's called, “Why Parents Should Choose a Preschool With a Strong Philosophy: Montessori, Waldorf, or Co-op.”

I believe having play dates is extremely beneficial for autism and social skills. I was persistent and consistent about setting up weekly play dates for my son. He did best with other children one-on-one and usually for a limited amount of time (one hour was about right, and then he'd be drained and want some alone time). My son's interests at that time were very limited (trains, trains, and trains) so I needed to find a youngster who shared that passion with him. I also had to develop a tough skin because other parents didn't reciprocate by inviting my son to their houses. I understood why, but it still hurt.

Lastly, please remember that your journey will be unique to you and your son. Because autism is a spectrum disorder, each youngster is affected so differently. When my son first got diagnosed, some well-meaning people with autistic children told me what to expect and caused me a lot of unnecessary worries (their horror stories didn't come true). Trust your instincts as a mom. Nobody knows your son better than you do. Nobody loves your son more than you do, and nobody wants more for him than you do.

Question: My granddaughter is 5 and has been diagnosed with high functioning autism. Today, she poured her milk on a classmate during lunch. How can we help her understand social interaction that is acceptable and not acceptable?

Answer: Proper interactions are a problem for many kids on the autism spectrum and some parents (myself included) have found success with “social stories.” Social stories were developed by Carol Gray, a long-time teacher of students with ASD, to help them behave appropriately in various situations. I used them quite frequently with my son when he was younger and found them extremely beneficial. They'd be ideal for your 5-year-old granddaughter.

Type “social stories” into YouTube and you'll find many examples of animated social stories. They include common situations that kids encounter at school and at home such as “Keep Your Hands to Yourself,” “Stay Seated on a Bus,” “Always Be a Good Sport,” “Being Teased at School,” and “Put Your Toys Away.” They're short and the messages are conveyed in a cute and engaging way that's clear and concise. I'd watch them with my son and then we'd practice the appropriate behavior step-by-step. When he got it down, he'd earn a sticker on his chart.

In a unique situation like your granddaughter's, it's recommended that you create your own social story with words and pictures. However, to do so, you would need insight into why your granddaughter did what she did. Was she trying to be funny? Was she being bullied? Was she trying to become friends with the girl? A social story isn't effective unless you can pinpoint what caused the behavior and, therefore, can find the remedy for it. A social story about how to handle a bully would be very different than one about how to make friends with someone.

The psychologist or resource teacher at your granddaughter's school probably has a collection of social stories in her office. She would also be able to help you write one about the milk incident (they're created in a very deliberate way and have certain essential elements). If she's not currently working with your granddaughter one-on-one or in a small group, you should request that she start. You shouldn't be doing this alone but with a professional.

Additionally, if your granddaughter is struggling with peers because of speech issues (articulation, social communication, receptive or expressive language), she should be working with the school's speech therapist.

© 2016 McKenna Meyers


McKenna Meyers (author) on September 09, 2018:

I remember those days well, Silu, as if they were only yesterday. It was so hard to watch my son struggle socially when making friends came so easily to others. Luckily, he made a buddy in our neighborhood and I invited that boy to our house on a daily basis. He had that same pal for several years before he branched out and had more. I think my son's lack of social skills tapped into my own insecurities in that arena and made it more painful for me. Your daughter is blessed to have you. Best to you both!

silu on September 09, 2018:

my daughter has mild ASD. Diagnosed as high she is nearly 5 yrs old.she is so sensitive to watch story or cartoon that shows sad,or hurt likewise.and also doesn't know how to mingle with friends.I feel exactly how you felt and i am thinking always how to help her to overcome this difficulties.academically she is brilliant

McKenna Meyers (author) on February 22, 2016:

So true! I always get a chuckle when people brag about how many "friends" they have on Facebook. I think most of us -- autistic or not -- can count our true friends on one hand. Thanks for reading and commenting!

Toni Boucher on February 22, 2016:

This is excellent advice and well written. I love that you emphasize it is quality of relationships over quantity as too many people get caught up in a frenzy that doesn't allow a child to get comfortable and practice their skills. My daughter is now 21 and it is amazing when given the opportunity how much our children grow, how brave they are and how much they have to offer us and the world.