Making friends is one of our first joys in life, and we continue to feel that delight each time we add a new friend to our circle, no matter how old we get. For most children with autism, it’s extremely challenging to make a friend. Some parents of autistic children would say it’s nearly impossible.
April is National Autism Awareness Month, but we’ve decided to focus not on autism itself in this message but to helping your child extend that joy of friendship to a child with autism. In the process, your child will learn valuable lessons that will give them a lifetime of joy as well.
First, remember that children learn by example. Treat and discuss any differently-abled child or adult with compassion and kindness. Explain to your child that all kinds of brains work all kinds of ways – and none of those ways make a person less or “wrong”.
Tell your child to look for the strengths in a potential autistic friend. What makes that particular child unique? What kinds of things is he interested in? What kind of common ground do they share? What can they talk about together? What can your child learn from this potential friend? Encourage your child to be vocally open with admiration for the autistic child’s skills and interests.
Begin by inviting the potential friend to your home, for a one-to-one playdate. Beforehand, explain to your child that accommodations may have to be made for his new friend. Loud music may be aggravating. The new friend may want to only play one game the entire visit. The new friend may make statements that your child (and you) perceive as rude.
Your child should understand that autistic children may think very literally and have a difficult time understanding politeness to spare feelings, certain forms of humor including good-natured teasing, and figures of speech. Your child should speak literally, asking “How are you feeling today?” instead of “What’s up?” which may confuse his new friend.
If your budding buddies are of school age, mention this merging friendship to teachers, so they can help guide both children in the classroom setting when possible.
Urge your child to include her new friend in group activities. Your child’s friend may want to avoid, or become upset with, games that are loud and chaotic. Suggest to your child that she encourage quieter, structured games when including her friend in larger groups. Make it very clear that you expect your child to stand up for her friend if someone begins teasing or bullying.
Many people mistakenly believe that children on the autism spectrum “don’t have feelings.” The truth is autistic children do experience love, joy, anger and more, but they have difficulty expressing feelings verbally. Tell your child that when his autistic friend begins to “melt down” or exhibits other non-typical physical behaviors, it’s his way of communicating feelings and frustrations that can’t yet be put into words.
Use role-playing to help your child help his autistic friend through social feedback. If your child is troubled that his autistic friend is doing and saying inappropriate things, explain that telling the friend the right thing to do or say – in a kind and polite way – will actually help the friend learn necessary skills.
As much as an autistic child will benefit from this friendship – and his parents be forever grateful to you and your family – your child will gain compassion, learn to value all individuals, besides gaining a marvelous friend!
Want to learn more about autism? Call our office at 708-424-7600 or visit our Facebook page and join in the conversation all month!