These seven keys will help you pinpoint the ways in which your child is social, and use them to create rewarding relationships.
by Elaine Hall
“Hey guys! I had fun! See you next week,” calls 12-year-old Jackson as he climbs into his mom’s SUV. “Mom, I had a great time and I think I made some friends,” he beams. This was Jackson’s first day in our theater class and, as his mom later told us, this was the first time Jackson had ever made a friend.
There is a myth that children with autism, learning disabilities and other social/emotional challenges prefer to be alone. I have found the exact opposite to be true. The same children who may kick, isolate themselves, scream or even bite during their regular school day come to our classes and hug, hold hands and laugh. They express their desire for friendship and gratitude to their parents, and are very supportive of each other.
How can we help support positive social interaction and foster meaningful friendships in children of all ages?
1. Be open to a different way of relating. Children with social/emotional difficulties, like all children, crave friendship and have empathy. They might just express themselves differently. I’ve seen this firsthand with my own son. If he likes one of our volunteers, he might smell her, or touch her gently on her shoulder. If he feels the least bit judged by another, even if she doesn’t outwardly express it, he might walk away (or when he was younger, throw the nearest available object).
In her progressive book, Autism Solutions, How to Create a Healthy and Meaningful Life for Your Child (Harlequin, 2011, www.drrickirobinson.com) Ricki Robinson. M.D., writes, “Because children with ASD (or sensory processing or learning challenges) have difficulty with sensory processing and motor output, their inability to respond or emote the same way as we do doesn’t necessarily mean they lack empathy …. A child with ASD is not detached from life – quite the opposite – he craves everything that life has to offer. It is his sensory processing, motor systems, and rhythm and timing issues that seem to derail him from attaining his goal.”
Stay open to all of the ways that your child is social, even if those ways look different from what you see in other children his or her age. If your child is older and still feels more comfortable with parallel play, don’t judge this. Find another child who also prefers quieter environments and enjoys doing independent activities alongside of another child. Being together side-by-side builds trust, companionship and, eventually, with guidance and support, interaction. Share a meal together with another child and their family. Again, you are building on positive emotional experiences.
2. Build friendships around your child’s interests. Where does your child excel? Some people call them “obsessions,” but I like to say, “preferred interests.” Find others who like to do similar activities. So often our kids are in therapy working on deficits. Therapy is essential, but it is just as important to see where your child does well and build this into a social context. My son loves to walk and hike, so we foster his friendships with others who also enjoy the outdoors. Find classes that explore your child’s preferred interests, and environments where he can share his passions with other children. If your child is very active, sports and recreation classes are great. Special Olympics (www.specialolympics.org) provides organized athletic programs for children with developmental disabilities. There is a great chance that your child will meet like-minded friends there. Children and teens in The Miracle Project (www.themiracleproject.org) theater program love acting, music, and dancing. Many of our students, once isolated and alone, are now joined by others who enjoy the arts. If your child has a proclivity toward trains, a trip to the Allied Model Trains Store (www.alliedmodeltrains.com) in Culver City might help you find others with common interests.
3. Be aware of your child’s sensory system. Don’t try to overload them with too much stimulus. My son was once paired with a typically developing buddy at lunchtime during school. The lunchroom was loud, with too many students in it for him to focus on the friend. The organizer of the buddy program told us that he could not participate in the program because he didn’t want to go into the lunchroom with the buddy. I suggested that they keep their “lunch date,” but perhaps eat outside at a bench, or in a quiet room. When they did, they developed a lovely friendship. Find peaceful and quiet places to foster friendships. If your child enjoys animals, try programs such as Danny’s Farm (www.dannysfarm.org), started by former Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Jim Gott, and his wife, Cathy, in honor of their son Danny, who was diagnosed with autism and has an interest in farm animals. Danny’s Farm provides a safe, peaceful environment and programming for children with developmental disabilities. In this calm environment, friendships can be nurtured with other children who have an affinity toward animals.
4. Bring your child’s peers from school into your home. Let them get to know your child in an atmosphere where your child is comfortable. Teach these other children to understand your child’s challenges, and let them know about your child’s interests. You might be pleasantly surprised at how many peers without disabilities would love to know more about your child. My son, now 19, remains friends with our neighbors’ children, who joined him in his playroom when he was just 3. Programs such as The Friendship Circle (www.friendshipcircle.com) bring together teenage volunteers and children with disabilities for hours of fun and friendship. These shared experiences empower the children while enriching the lives of everyone involved.
5. Enlist peer role models during school time. Recess can be particularly taxing for children with sensory challenges and motor-planning difficulties. Motor processing and regulation is the ability to understand and process body movements. Sometimes, trying to navigate the many unspoken rules and requirements for even a seemingly simple game such as Dodgeball can be too much for a child who has motor-planning challenges. Your child might walk the periphery of the playground instead of participating in the games. Ask your child’s teacher to assign one of the most athletic and popular kids to be your child’s recess “buddy” and break the steps in a game into small, attainable goals. You might be surprised at how much this peer gains from being able to share his expertise with your child.
6. Model, read about, and practice what it means to be friendly and interested in others. Not all children pick up on the social rules of play. You might need to discuss rules with your child, and help your child understand the information that most people know without being taught. The Hidden Curriculum for Kids app or book , designed for individuals with learning disabilities, autism spectrum disorders, and those who have challenges might help your child in picking up information from their environment.
7. Celebrate and point out when your child is being a good friend: “That was so nice of you to share your markers with your friend, Caroline.” “I loved how you said goodbye to each of your friends before we left the zoo.” Remind your child that part of being a good friend is showing interest in their friend and celebrating their specialness.
In the words of C. S. Lewis, “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one.”
Elaine Hall is a thought leader; motivational speaker; inclusion activist; founder of The Miracle Project, profiled in the HBO film, Autism: The Musical; author of Now I See the Moon (HarperCollins) and 7 Keys to Unlock Autism (Wiley); and creator of an arts enrichment and religious education program at Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services.