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Making Friends: Challenges for kids with Autism

Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) often struggle to make friends due to difficulties with understanding and interpreting social cues, and poor interpersonal skills. Unfortunately, many neurotypical kids are not terribly forgiving, and lack the patience and empathy to accommodate the needs of their friends with ASD characteristics. The effort of making and keeping friends can be huge for kids on the spectrum, so many will seek solitary activities and withdraw, although many do crave company.

There are three things that parents can do to help their kids with autism make friends.

1. Introduce them to The Hidden Curriculum

The Hidden Curriculum refers to those social rules that most people learn through daily interactions, that kids with ASD need to be specifically taught. These may include things like, don’t pick your nose or adjust your underwear in public, do not call out in class when someone else is talking, and when visiting friends or relatives it’s polite to wait to be offered food rather than just help yourself. Several books on the Hidden Curriculum have been authored by Brenda Smith Myles, and can provide further information on this topic.

2. Attend a social skills group

Many therapy practices offer social skills groups for children with autism. These groups are structured to provide kids with the opportunity to participate in group activities that are facilitated by an expert and help kids practice good social interaction. Skills learned may include turn taking, sharing, conversation skills, and joint attention. The goal for social skills groups is for the participants to learn skills that are transferable to real world situations.

3. Model friendship and appropriate behaviour

Many children on the spectrum learn by watching the behavior of those people around them. Be mindful of how you interact with your friends and relatives. Show your child that using kind words, asking thoughtful questions and using attentive body language is the best way to show people that you like them and want to spend time with them. Role play with your child, and rehearse different scenarios such as asking a friend to join in a game, make a phone call to wish them a happy birthday, or problem solve a conflict.

Remember that developing and maintaining friendships can take time and that your child may need ongoing support and patience as they move through different ages and stages, and as the dynamics of friendships and friendship groups change and evolve.

If you have concerns about your child’s ability to make friends, consult with their teacher or carer, and consider seeking further assistance from an Occupational Therapist or Child Psychologist.

This article was written by Dr Nicole Grant, Director, Gateway Therapies