Making friends isn’t always easy, and can be especially challenging for kids with autism.
An important part of making friends comes from having age-appropriate social skills, which many kids who have autism struggle with. Imagine trying to make friends when you have trouble reading social cues, like body language, facial expressions and tones of voice. That’s part of the reason approximately 52 percent of kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) don’t have many friends at school.
But kids who have autism, just like all kids, benefit from having friends in their peer groups. Don’t worry, there are steps you can take to support your child in making a new friend.
1. Help your child understand what a friend is
This may seem basic, but you child needs to know what a friend is. She can’t be a friend unless she can explain what one is. Keep things simple. Ask questions like, “Do you like being around people who call you names?” and “Do you like being around people you say nice things to you?” Understanding abstract concepts can be challenging for young kids, especially those with autism. Be literal when you can. Use clear, plain language like, “ “friends are nice to you and say things that make you feel better when you have a bad day.”
2. Visual models like social stories
Children with autism often learn better when they can see or read what they’re supposed to do. Social stories guide a child through a specific situation using pictures and words. Writing a script or drawing out the flow of a conversation can help your child understand the basics of how to talk to a friend.
3. Practice, practice, practice
Children with autism need a little more time and repetition to learn a new skill. Practicing with your child can help her feel more comfortable with the process and problem-solve any “bumps” before she encounters them in real time. Practice different aspects of making a friend, like asking questions, answering questions, sharing toys or suggesting an activity. Have your child practice with siblings, neighbors or similar-age cousins. Select people who are going to be patient and know your child well—you want your child to feel safe while practicing.
4. Surround your child with kids who share her interests
Common interests are important factors in developing and maintaining friendships. It’s hard to be friends with someone you have nothing in common with. If your child loves art, enroll her in an art class. If your child loves science, find a young scientists group. Make sure these groups have similar-aged peers so she is surrounded by age-appropriate behavior.
5. Focus on long-term success
Developing new skills takes time. Nothing happens overnight. Social skills continue to develop as your child gets older. Making friends looks very different for a 4 year old than it does for a 14 year old. Keep practicing this skill with your child to help her continue to develop age-appropriate social skills.
6. Have fun
If making friends feels like work, our children will likely avoid the interaction. Watching your child learn and grow is amazing, but it can also be stressful. If she sees you’re stressed, she may become stressed, too. Support your child and make the process as fun and playful as possible.
Read a very special story about an autism friendship.
We recognize that every child is unique and that the content of this article may not work for everyone. This content is general information and is not specific medical advice. We hope these tips will serve as a jumping-off point for finding the best approach to helping a child with autism. Always consult with a doctor or healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns about the health of a child. In case of an urgent concern or emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department right away. Some physicians and affiliated healthcare professionals on Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta team are independent providers and are not our employees.