What makes it difficult for children with autism to develop friendships? Children with autism often struggle with social skills and attendant social cues. This includes both conveying and interpreting social cues. Social cues are the form of communication individuals develop and utilize to assess and interpret another’s social behavior(s). By way of example, simple eye contact with another in and of itself is a basic form of communication. When we make eye contact typically it cues us the other person is listening to us. This leaves us with a sense of validation. Eye contact is a form of an emotional communication which tends to “bond” our relationships as well. While often we may take eye contact with another for granted, mere eye contact can often be difficult for the child with autism. The inability to read body language is often a barrier for children with autism as well, which includes a struggle to read facial expressions and appropriately detect the tone and cadence of a voice which can lead to misperceptions in interpreting the behaviors of others.
Social settings and basic task transitions are highly anxiety-producing for autistic children. They often struggle with a “steadfastness” in their thinking and the child may inadvertently come across as uncooperative, stubborn, and downright defiant. Often, too, when children with autism become extremely frustrated they may physically lash out which may be shocking to other children. Emotionally, children with autism struggle with processing jealousy which can create wedges in friendships and/or make it difficult for another individual or child to be and remain compassionate and understanding about the origin of the jealousy. Not knowing it is a barrier affiliated with autism, the Autistic child may then be inappropriately shunned and/or dubbed too needy.
Should you be able to put yourself in the shoes of a child with autism facing these significant communication barriers, I think you can surely agree there are a number of potential barriers and/or hurdles a child with autism must master, thereby making the ability to develop friendships difficult. Not only can the emotion of jealousy be burdensome to the child with autism; in a fast-paced world where instant gratification is commonplace, neurotypical children often become impatient and lose interest in trying to develop stable and longstanding friendships with Autistic children.
Through a solution-based mindset, I would like to address the ways in which you can help a child with autism make and maintain friendships. A Washington Post article titled “How to Help Children With Autism Make, and Keep, Friends” has some great suggestions about how to accomplish this goal: “To be successful, they need to begin exercising their social and emotional muscles early, and in different settings, with children who have similar issues, and with those who do not. There are plenty of opportunities to gain experience in special programs designed for them, such as autism group meetups where they may engage with people their age who have similar needs.” The article further validates this practice and informs us: “Children who do well get a lot of practice in generalizing skills in different scenarios, which they can then apply to other situations.” The article finally establishes: “Programs that include typically developing kids alongside those with special needs can have benefits. For instance, they can help children with disabilities learn to interact with people in situations outside a closed community.”
After learning of the broad barriers’ children with autism face it would only be natural to wonder if there is a specific age group of children with autism that struggles the most with making and maintaining friendships? While a significant percentage of children with autism struggle with making friends you can well imagine as young children we tend not to notice so much the differences in people or tend not to be so quick to judge and stereotype. It is society, social environments, social pressure, and the totality of our negative experiences, generally, that tend to develop and formulate our biases leading to the over scrutiny and premature judgment of others as we age. Adolescence is a developmental stage in which children are largely influenced by peers and peer pressure. Adolescents and teenagers with autism may need additional support to traverse this developmental stage as social cues become advanced in innuendo and ultimately more complicated in nature.
As a parent, role model or caregiver to a child with autism what measures and/or steps can you, personally, take to assist a child with autism to develop friendships? An article titled “Autism Can Be Your Child’s Ally, Not Enemy, in Making Friends: 5 Tips on Turning Peers to Pals” on the Psychology Today website shares some didactic tips.
Now that we have addressed how to help our children with autism make friends let us also look at your parental or caregiver ability to make new friends and your own level of anxiety in social settings and how that may affect a child. Children whose parents are transitioning through divorce and given the uncertainty and imminent fear of the parents’ divorce often constantly “scan” a parent’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors during the transition of the divorce. These children are often looking to a parent for reassurance that the transition will be okay and are extremely tuned into a parent’s anxiety level. It is therefore important for the divorcing parent to remain calm and communicative and attempt to maintain self-confidence throughout the divorce process. These attributes, role modelled for many children dealing with any psychosocial stressor, are key to the development and growth of the child and can make the world of difference, naturally, on how well and rapidly a child adjusts to a psychosocial stressor. In other words, children will often react to psychosocial stressors based upon how you, the parent or adult, reacts to the psychosocial stressor. If you are very nervous in social settings, your child and particularly children with autism easily sense your discomfort which may put your child on edge as well.
Though children with autism struggle with making friends they are generally very keen to make friends and there can often be a sense of joy and exuberance for the child with autism once a friendship is developed. Observation, supervision, inclusion, consistency in parenting and educating the social circle of a child with autism are all keystones to success in helping a child with autism make and maintain solid friendships.
“Most people see what is, and never see what can be.” – Albert Einstein
Corinne Isaacs is a Freelance Writer. She has been writing for 14 years under the name Corinne Frontiero in the United States, as Corinne Isaacs in Canada and as Corinne Isaacs-Frontiero, globally. Corinne may be contacted, directly, through her website at https://corinneisaacsfrontiero.weebly.com/.