Dr. Karina Poirier explains why teaching children with autism what friendship means is crucial to them initiating and maintaining relationships with their peers.
Parents of children with autism often describe their child as having difficulties making new friends. It is no secret that children with autism have social skills deficits that negatively affect their ability to engage socially with peers. We’ve all heard the heart-wrenching stories of children with autism who are isolated and stigmatized by their peers for “acting awkward,” or even stories of children isolating themselves because isolation is less stressful and provides a safe zone to avoid the social rejection. This is not to say that teaching your child the skills he needs to make and keep friends is impossible. It simply means your child must understand the meaning of friendships down to the very root, so he can be aware of what makes a friendship and, ultimately, begin to value friendship in the same way that you do.
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For a child with autism to seek out friendships with her peers, and to appeal to them as a potential good friend, he must be taught:
- the purpose of friendship
- the traits of a good friend
- how to initiate and maintain a friendship
Essentially, children must learn the “ground rules” of friendships, so they know what they should expect from one another in a friendship. For example:
- friends talk and pay attention to each other
- they share ideas
- they do wonderful things for each other
- they keep promises and secrets
- they stick up for each other
- they support each other in good and tough times
We can define friendship as a special relationship we have with a peer. Friends are people we enjoy spending time with; we care for them and they are important to us, therefore, we treat them with respect and kindness. It is crucial for children with autism to learn that people who do not treat us respectfully cannot be considered our friends. People who take advantage of us intentionally hurt our feelings, or break the “ground rules” of friendship are not true friends. Because of their naïveté and innocence, the line between a friend and a bully is often blurred for children with autism. It should certainly be a goal of ours to provide them with a clear distinction between peers who are potential friends and peers with ill-intentions.
For example, when teaching your child how to find potential friends, emphasize the characteristics we seek in a good friend. We tend to seek people who are our age, who we share common interests with, who are kind, funny, and helpful. If a person steals from us, lies to us, makes fun of us, or is physically aggressive towards us, we know that person is not a friend. Guide your child to compare the character traits and behaviors of his peers and help him recognize who would likely be a good friend. Discuss the behaviors associated with friendship, such as talking respectfully, helping a friend solve a problem, complimenting a friend, cheering up a sad friend, playing fairly, etc. In doing so, your child will learn how to demonstrate to others that he is a good friend to have. Teach your child some ways to show peers that he likes them and is interested in being friends with them, such as inviting them to play with, offering to help them, asking questions or giving compliments about what they’re doing, and sharing toys with them.
A child with autism may struggle to “fit in,” but it does not mean that he will never make a friend. In my work, I have observed many children who were anxious in the presence of other children, or altogether indifferent toward other children, evolve into children who seek out friendships with their peers. It is certainly possible for your child to enjoy his own company, but consistently playing alone can never be as rewarding as being in the company of good friends. Your child deserves to experience the joy of friendship, and with your help, he can learn to make friends and keep them.