Two weeks ago my daughter, Hannah, was handed something she doesn’t see very often—a slumber party invitation from a friend. I was very fortunate to be privy to the exchange of the invitation, and I believe I was filled with as much excitement as Hannah. Unfortunately, I can probably count the number of birthday invitations she has received on one hand—which is in stark contrast to the number her brother, Connor, receives.
Two of the three defining characteristics of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) include social-interaction difficulties and communication challenges, and these have indeed impacted Hannah’s ability to make friends. Making new friends can be challenging for any child, but even more so for children with autism. They feel anxious approaching people, introducing themselves, and keeping up the conversation. Children with autism are also challenged with reading social cues, figurative language, body language, and receptive and expressive language deficits. Girls, especially, have a hard time keeping up with the fast pace of interchanges in female relationships.
We can’t make friends for our children with autism, but we can give them the chance to meet peers and work on social skills. Children with autism often need to be taught skills explicitly, and as early as possible. Your child must be taught how to navigate friendships.
Practical Interventions To Help Build Friendships
In order to acquire the friendships she so desperately craves, Hannah and I have had to implement several practical interventions which should ultimately lead to her success. We appreciate what Kerry Magro from Autism Speaks wrote, “Autism can’t define me. I define autism.” This confidence is what I’m building into Hannah, practicing it in small everyday ways.
Invite Friends to Therapy
For starters, when Hannah was in her earliest of intervention at age two with our state program, First Steps, I would invite my friends’ children to participate in Hannah’s developmental therapy. Along with developmental therapy, Hannah was also receiving speech therapy to aid with communication, as she was nonverbal at that time. When Hannah aged-out of First Steps, I enrolled her into a social/play therapy offered by an organization in our community. They worked on joint attention tasks versus parallel play. This intervention also improved Hannah’s eye contact with others.
When Hannah found her voice, around the age of four, we would visit the park. I would ask other parents if I could help Hannah initiate a conversation (scripted) with their children. We started with as small as, “Hi,” then we progressed to, “Hi! My name is Hannah,” and then finally came, “Hi! My name is Hannah. Do you want to play?” Because of her lack of receptive and expressive language, there really wasn’t much conversation after that. But, it was a beginning. You won’t believe how helpful scripting a conversation can be for your child.
Look for Social Settings Where Your Child Can Shine
At this age, Hannah was also enrolled in three preschools (developmental, play, and academic) while also attending a daycare. Hannah learned to read at a very young age. So, the teachers would allow her to sit in their BIG chair while the other children gathered at Hannah’s feet. She would read trade books to them. I am sure the immersion with other kids had a big influence. Getting your child out into social settings is crucial for practicing social skills.
Sign Your Child Up for One Less Restrictive Environment
Hannah was mainstreamed in kindergarten. I was very happy about this because she would have other students that would be able to engage her in conversation. The importance of having your child in their least restrictive environment cannot be overlooked. Hannah has never been one to learn by watching others; however, there was apt to be more attempts with others with communication in this setting.
Teach What a Friend Is (and Isn’t)
In Hannah’s early elementary years, it was time for her to know literally what a friend was and was not. I had to be specific with behaviors so she would choose wisely. I also found it important that her classmates know about her autism so they could understand her behaviors. That was my personal preference. When Hannah grows older, she may decide differently. Since Hannah always enjoyed books, social stories about friendship were also helpful.
Host Parties at Home and Invite Friends
I have also tried to make our home a fun and comfortable place to visit. This has always meant planning out Hannah’s parties complete with activities. Hannah has a hard time with coming up with things to do and talk about on her own. We buy craft kits, bake and decorate cupcakes, play with silly string, and watch movies. If she is only having one guest over, we discuss a list of topics they could talk about prior to their visit. With Hannah’s exceptional memory, this helps tremendously and eases her anxiety. I also make sure the play dates don’t last too long.
Sign Up Your Child for Classes and Clubs
It also helps to identify other kids that have the same hobbies as your child. Hannah loves art, piano, and running. She is enrolled in art lessons with friends, plays piano duets with friends at contest, and has joined a running club with one of her best of friends. At church, she is in a choir group with kids her age. At school, she has found others that enjoy the same novel series (Warriors), mythology, cats and anime.
Practice Conversation Skills with a Behavioral Specialist
Hannah has also had to work on her ability to think about what others have said and/or are interested in and motor plan her response in order for the conversation to continue (social reciprocity). Conversations used to only be one-way because of her challenge with language. This is a skill that she continues to develop. She would only focus on her preferred topic (perseverations). She also has a way of interrupting others when they are talking. She has taken part in many friendship groups ran by the counselor at her school. When she has specific problems with social interactions at school she generally relies on her behavioral specialist or teacher of record. It helps at this age to have others she can talk to in private besides just her mom.
Consider a Cell Phone – Texting Gives Time to Compose Thoughts
Most recently, at the age of eleven, I have bought her a cell phone. It was her idea to write her number on post-its and to give them to some of her closest friends at school. Little did I realize, but texting allows Hannah time to gather her thoughts and talk to others stress-free. I believe the phone is allowing her to branch-out and talk to some girls that she may have not had the opportunity to otherwise.
In the end, Hannah enjoyed the sleepover and believes she has made four new friends. Time will tell. It is obvious that they made an impact on her. She came home interested in learning to braid her own hair, wanted to watch a popular movie that everyone else had seen, and has a new-found interest in her American Girl doll.
I welcome any suggestions on building friendships for children with Autism—just drop them in the comments below.