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How Parents Can Help Their Autistic Children Make Friends

With a master's degree in special education and a son with autism, Ms. Meyers is passionate about getting services for students in need.

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?

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

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

Your Child's Flat Affect Can Make Bonding Difficult

I knew there was something not quite right with my little boy. As a first-time mom at age 35, though, I was so thrilled to have a child of my own after years of teaching other people's kids that I pushed it aside. I retreated into 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 to be 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 Time Alone

My son's flat affect made me feel like a performer bombing in front of an unappreciative crowd. He preferred playing alone at his train table—walking around and around it 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 each other. 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. No invitations, though, 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 gradually realized it wasn't a good fit for my son with his sensitivities 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 develop 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).

1. Focus on Quality Friendships, Not Quantity

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

Dr. Cindy Ariel, a psychologist who counsels families with children on the autism spectrum, says moms and dads shouldn't fret if their youngsters aren't popular like they were as kids. She tells parents to embrace them as they are. Don't compare them to anyone else and don't expect them to duplicate their childhood experience. She explains, "Many people are fine with only one or two close friends and feel much more comfortable living this way."

Many children on the autism spectrum prefer just one or two friends.

Many children on the autism spectrum prefer just one or two friends.

2. Appreciate the Enormous Value of Play Dates

Setting up regular play dates for my son 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 my boy make close connections that weren't being formed at preschool nor at our weekly play group.

Sylvia Ford, an early childhood consultant, says "the parent needs to make an investment in the play date for it to succeed." She advises moms and dads to plan an activity in advance so the kids' time together is optimized. Whether it's whipping up a batch of play dough, picking out a craft for them to make, or pulling the blocks and Hot Wheels out of the closet, it's important to be prepared.

3. Have Games That Stimulate Conversation

Like many children on the autism spectrum, my son would have played for hours each day on the computer if I had let him. He would have played video games during play dates, barely exchanging a word with his friend, if that was permitted. That's why I enforced a strict rule (always stated in advance) that there would be no technology when friends were over at our home.

Instead, this time was set aside to improve my son's communication abilities as well as his social skills. Having the kids play games was an excellent way to achieve both these goals. When they were preschoolers and kindergartners, my son and his friends 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, too). 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.

Maximize play dates for children on the autism spectrum by enforcing a no technology rule.

Maximize play dates for children on the autism spectrum by enforcing a no technology rule.

4. Don't Get Discouraged If Parents Don't Reciprocate

When you have a child with autism, you must develop a thick skin and not let your foolish pride keep you from doing what's best for your youngster. I invited the same boys over for play dates again and again without their parents ever inviting my son to their homes. I naturally thought they weren't reciprocating because my son is autistic, and that made me resentful. It wasn't until the same thing happened with my younger son (who's not autistic) that I realized some parents just don't do play dates.

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. Don't let your hurt feelings get in the way.

5. 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 youngster choose his own buddies—kids who share his interests and accept him for who he is.

In her article "Do People With Autism Connect Best With Each Other?" Lisa Jo Rudy says 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 a disaster.

What Is Parallel Play?

Parallel play is a normal stage of development that occurs when children are between 2 and 3 years old. It's when youngsters play next to one another but not with one another. Each is engaged in his own activity but shows interest in what the other one is doing. Older children engage in parallel play as well.

6. 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 youngster with autism probably doesn't get nearly as much pleasure from interacting with others as you did. He may find it frustrating and draining. Big noisy events such as birthday parties and holiday gatherings may cause him undue stress. Let him go at his own pace and look for the warning signs that he's had enough before a meltdown occurs.

Don't panic if your child and his friends engage in parallel play during play dates. Remember your youngster may need a break from the intense social interaction, finding it overwhelming. Intervene if his buddy and him are not getting back together to play after 15 minutes. Keep play dates no longer than two hours because they can be exhausting for your kid.

7. Help Your Child Understand Non-Verbal Communication

Some children with autism have a difficult time with social communication. They're not always clued into the ways people convey their thoughts and feelings non-verbally through facial expressions, body language, hand gestures, posture, eye contact, and tone of voice. Play dates with only two children offer teachable moments when parents can point out examples of such 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 he's upset about losing the game.

Mark Hutten, a psychologist and parent coach, encourages moms and dads to teach their autistic kids about non-verbal 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 a child every day—autistic or not—is a wonderful way to build their vocabulary, increase their comprehension, and talk about the character's emotions. Story time at preschool and the library can't compare to what parents can offer one-on-one at home when reading and snuggling with their child in bed or sitting outside under a shady tree and looking at books. Unlike the teacher and librarian, moms and dads have the huge advantage of being able to stop at any time to discuss the story and ask questions: What is that character feeling? Would you feel the same? What would you do in that situation? What do you think will happen next?

Parents also have the huge advantage of selecting books that speak to their youngster's unique interests. When my son was little, we had a whole shelf of books just about trains. With more children getting diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, there are now numerous books that address their experiences and those of their siblings, friends, and classmates.

What do you think?

I No Longer Felt Alone After Reading This Beautiful Book Written by Parents of an Autistic Son

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.” https://wehavekids.com/education/Montessori-Waldor...

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 functioning.now 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.