HELPING YOUR CHILD GAIN NEW FRIENDS
Every child will have their firsts at several stages of their life, and that includes making new friends. Whether it’s the kid from next door, the child of a house guest, or a random playmate in the playground, a typical child will have to make new friends in their own little ways. Still, it cannot be denied that most children will feel anxious and dubious when approaching a stranger and introducing themselves with the intention of building friendship. They will most likely get rejected in some of their attempts but they will learn in the process and will be able to earn more friends in time.
However, that is certainly not the same case for autistic children. Those with speech challenges will find themselves unable to speak in front of other people, thus pushing them farther away from the possibility of earning new friends. The lack of empathy and the inability to understand social cues will also contribute to the difficulty of establishing friendly relationships with other children. The worst part is, autistic children may manifest traits that may seem awkward to their neurotypical peers will most likely become the target of bullying and ridicule, which can alienate the child even more to the point where they might tell themselves not to attempt making friends anymore. If you’re a parent to an autistic child, you would certainly not want to let this thing from happening to your kid no matter what type of autism diagnosis they fall under. Part of the role of the caregiver is to assist the child in things that they cannot do alone, and that may include winning new friends for autistic children. There are many things that you can do to assist your child in meeting new peers, allow them to bond and become friends.
Instill in them the real concept of friendship
Many autistic kids cannot easily differentiate their relationship with other people. They might generalize everybody whom they interact with as a friend, even though their role in your child’s life may not fit that same definition. They might even consider their bullies as friends, and those who have only talked to them once and never really cared for them. To keep your child away from undesirable people and help them earn real friends, the very first thing that you need to do is to make them understand what friendship really is about.
When explaining to them this concept, you must not do so by saying abstract explanations that many autistic individuals find hard to understand. Stating that “a friend is someone who accepts you as you are” may not do any good in your attempt to explain what friendship is to your child. Instead, you can give them questions and let them decide which is which based on their own answers. You can ask whether your child likes to spend time with persons who makes fun of them and calls them name, or would they rather be with those who are nice to them. You can also say factual statements to reinforce the meaning of friendship to them, like “friends are those who comfort you in tough times”, “friends will always consider what you want or don’t want”, and “friends are always there to protect you, not to hurt you”.
Introduce a model for engagement to your child, and let them practice with you
Like preparing for a job interview, practicing beforehand what you would say and do in speaking with new people can be very effective. For your autistic child, you can research commonly used conversation starters and ideal topics that would lead to creating a friendly relationship and introduce these scripts to them. If you think practicing scripts is not enough, you can also let your child view a video that depicts self-introduction and verbal exchange that initiates friendship. It is important that your child knows what questions to ask and what topics to discuss, based on the level of priority. Of course, a person’s name and age are most preferred in the beginning of the conversation, followed by deeper questions such as hobbies and favorites.
Put the concepts into practical use
It wouldn’t help much if you cut your support on the conceptual part. No matter how much your child has learned about friendship and the ways to gain one, leaving the practical task all to your child will not be as fruitful as you’d expect it to be. Like many things that we learn, theory and actual practice may differ greatly which is why you still need to be there facilitating your child’s real-life application of what they’ve learned from you. For instance, you can help arrange a trip with other parents and their kids and involve your child in the planning process. You can ask what the other kids would want to do during the trip and consult your child on their opinion. The resulting set of activities are more likely to be autism-friendly, and it makes your child learn the idea of compromise which is fundamental in friendship.
Aside from learning how to make compromises, you can also create the ideal set up for making new friends by considering your child’s likes and dislikes. Autistic people are more likely to engage in social interaction when their own interests are put into play. With this in mind, you can take your child to art or music lessons, and help them discover other kids who are also interested in the same things that your child likes. This can easily pave the way to fruitful interactions.
Autistic people may not perceive friendship the way neurotypical people do. But once they come to terms with the whole concept and learn how to make new friends in their own ways, you will be surprised just how much value and appreciation they put into it. As a parent, it is your great responsibility to prepare a bright future for your child, and that includes gaining new friends that will help your child overcome challenges along the way.