Friendships are important for all children, regardless of their background or circumstances. Friendships provide emotional support, opportunities for socialization, fun and enjoyment, a sense of belonging, and exposure to diversity, all of which contribute to a child's overall well-being and development.
Children with Autism are no exception. Even though children with Autism may be different and have special needs, it is important that they have opportunities to develop relationships and friendships with their peers.
So, how can we help children with Autism make friends and how can we be a good friend to an autistic person?
The first step is to understand what autism is.
What is Autism?
Autism, also known as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects communication, social interaction, and behavior. It is called a "spectrum" disorder because it affects people in different ways and to varying degrees. Autism is typically diagnosed in early childhood, although it can sometimes go undiagnosed until later in life.
Autism diagnoses include autistic disorder, childhood disintegrative disorder, pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) and Asperger syndrome.
Some common signs and symptoms of autism may include:
Difficulty with social communication:
People on the spectrum may have difficulty making eye contact and interpreting nonverbal cues, such as facial expressions, body language, or tone of voice. They may also struggle to initiate and maintain conversations or to understand and use appropriate social norms.
Repetitive behaviors or routines:
Many people with autism engage in repetitive behaviors, specific interests, or have strict routines that they follow. For example, they may insist on eating the same foods every day or become upset when their routine is disrupted.
Some people with ASD may have heightened sensitivity to sensory input, such as sounds, lights, textures, or smells, which can make it difficult for them to engage in typical social activities or to be around larger groups of people.
Difficulty with social interactions:
People with Autism Spectrum Disorder may find it challenging to engage in social activities, such as playing games or may also struggle with turn-taking, sharing, and other social rules that are critical to building friendships.
These symptoms affect children’s ability to interact and develop relationships with their peers. Nevertheless, it is just as important for children with autism to have friends and feel accepted as it is for other children, and with a little support from the people around them, they too will benefit from the beauty of friendship.
How to Help Kids with Autism Make Friends
It always takes two to make a friendship work. Autism makes a friendship extra special and requires just a little more attention from both parties. However, once established, this friendship can make a big difference in both their lives.
6 ways to help a child understand Autism
Typical children often have questions and hesitations about children with Autism. Understanding Autism is the first step for children to learn from each other, bring out the best in each other, and have positive and meaningful relationships.
Teach your child about autism:
It's important for your child to understand what autism is and how it may affect a child’s behavior. Explain that their classmate may have difficulty with social cues, communication, or sensory processing, and that they may need extra patience and understanding.
Peer-mediated intervention involves teaching typical children how to interact with and include children with autism in social activities. This can help build social skills and provide opportunities for positive social interactions.
Encourage your child to imagine what it might feel like to be in their classmate's shoes. Ask them to think about how they would like to be treated if they were in their classmate's situation.
Help your child find common ground:
Finding shared interests and activities is a great way to build a friendship. Encourage your child to get to know the child’s likes and dislikes, and to find common ground through shared interests.
Encourage your child to invite their classmate to join in on activities and games with other friends.
Be patient and persistent:
Building a friendship takes time and effort. Encourage your child to be patient, persistent, and consistent in their efforts to build a relationship with their classmate with autism, and not to be discouraged.
6 ways to help a child with Autism to understand and enjoy friendship
Many kids who have autism struggle with age-appropriate social skills. However, with a little help they can develop the play and social skills they need to make friends.
Start by defining what a friendship is. Explain that friends are people who care about each other, spend time together, and enjoy each other's company.
Use visual aids:
Many children with autism learn best through visual aids. Use pictures, social stories, or other visual aids to explain what friendship looks like and what it means.
Emphasize shared interests:
Children with autism often have specific interests or hobbies. Explain that friends often share interests and enjoy doing things together that they both enjoy.
Explain social rules:
Friendship involves certain social rules, such as taking turns, listening to each other, and being kind. Explain these rules and help your child practice them.
Encourage social interaction:
Encourage your child to interact with others and practice social skills. This can include joining social groups, attending social events, and participating in activities that interest them.
Making and keeping friends can be challenging for children with autism. Be patient and encourage your child to keep trying, even if they experience setbacks.
The My Friends and I book – a tool to connect
The My Friends and I book by Life Is Better With Friends is a fun, interactive “friendship book” that travels from friend to friend, who will answer questions like: What is your favorite food? What do you like to do in your free time? What songs do you like to listen to? What books do you like to read? What do you want to be when you grow up? A picture box allows them to insert a photograph or to draw a picture of their own.
Just as it is for children without Autism, the My Friends and I book is a great tool to help children with Autism to learn more about their peers and vice versa:
- Have your child fill out and answer all the questions in the book, and then pass it on to your child’s classmates, children in your neighborhood, or kids in your child’s activities.
- Look at every friend’s picture and read everybody’s answers to the questions, to help your child to familiarize themselves with their peers.
- Help your child remember their peers and ask them questions about their friends, for example “Do you remember what Michael’s favorite food is?”, “What does Lily like to do in her free time?”, “What is Chloe’s favorite color?”
- Compare their answers to your child’s answers and find children with similar interests or children who live in the same neighborhood; maybe enroll your child in the same activity or set up a play date.
- Use the book to talk about your child’s day at school and what they and their classmates did today.
Furthermore, the book allows typical children to learn more about their autistic friend. Their answers can be a great conversation starter, and children can use the book to ask more questions or to play games or do activities their special friend enjoys.
Mutual Benefits of Friendships Between Children With and Without Autism
Friendships between children with and without autism can be mutually beneficial and can help all children develop important skills and values that will serve them well throughout their lives.
While friendships provide children with autism with a sense of belonging, acceptance, and socialization, children without autism may develop greater empathy, tolerance and acceptance, inclusion, problem-solving and communication skills.
And above all: Life is better with friends.
Children's Books Related to Autism
Matt, Sam, and the Swimming Unicorn by Elizabeth Ann Harlan
Matt, Sam, and the Swimming Unicorn is a light-hearted, humorous look at overcoming differences when making friends. Matt (a llama) and Sam (a sloth) enjoy exploring the zoo at night. One night, they meet a new friend who is very different from them. Together the three of them learned to help each other and learn to play together.
A Day in the Clouds by Kayla Monville
A Day in the Clouds is a hardcover picture book about imagination, wonder, and promotes social play, something children with Autism can have challenges with. This book has conversation starters to be inclusive as well as educational resources to have in all classrooms and homes.
Rock With Me by Kayla Monville
Rock With Me is a board book that can be used as an educational resource for all families to start conversations around Autism and inclusion.
Unlike most superheroes, Clark's superpowers aren't a secret. And instead of just one, Clark has five superpowers he must learn to control: super hearing, super sight, super smell, super taste, and super touch. He uses his five superpowers to defeat sensory triggers, and his arch nemesis Igor Ance. This beautifully illustrated picture book helps parents, teachers, students, and friends understand what it's like for these superheroes who have sensory processing disorder and the tricks they learn to control their powers.
Wonderfully Different, Wonderfully Me by Becky Zingale
Wonderfully Different, Wonderfully Me helps children grow in confidence and compassion. As a parent, I wrote "Wonderfully Different, Wonderfully Me," not only for my own daughters, but so all children can see themselves represented in a story, whether they connect with a character’s personal challenges, physical appearance, interests, or personality. It is a great resource for parents and teachers, and can be used in homes, churches, and schools to start conversations which promote inclusion, acceptance, and friendship.