Autistic children benefit from having friends and they can make and have long time friends.
To do this the child needs to learn what being friendly means. A non-autistic kid might learn that delicate art by simply interacting with others and catching on social cues but for the autistic child these cues are mysteries.
When we are natural at making friends we might not realize all that is actually happening to be able to interact and connect with others.When we are not, we need to build this skills step by step.
For an autistic child, we would break the process into tiny baby steps. Playgrounds, libraries, and other gathering places are excellent settings to start practicing social skills that can lead to building a circle of friends, you just have to start with the basics:
Be able to tolerate the presence of others
As parent, if we don’t see our child greeting other children and playing along, we worry he will never make any friends, we might even shy away from giving the child social opportunities, however allowing the child to build his or her own tolerance for the presence of others is a vital stepping stone to building the right social skills.
Continue exposing the child to social events, and have her increase her resistance, don’t even ask her to go say hi yet (unless she initiates it) until she is fully comfortable being among other children. Stay close so she can feel safe.
My son felt aggravated in the presence of other children, it was too noisy and too busy for him. He couldn’t make the children do what he wanted to do, and tantrums were a regular occurrence. Still, we continued going and getting the situation normalized for him, I am happy to report he now has 2 close friends who are sleepover worthy. A few other friends for casual playing. I can also report, perhaps less happily, he has a girlfriend at 8 years old… As a mommy, I don’t think I would ever be ready for that, but yes, it happens…
Learn to share space
Once the child at least tolerates or get used to other children being around, he might be ready for a new skill: to learn to share space. You can navigate the space with the child and practice passing next to others saying “excuse me” . Look for opportunities where you need the other kid to move so you can pass by. Now you are getting fancy: say “excuse me”, wait for the (little) person to react, then move. Notice you, the adult, is doing all the work, this is called shadowing. Remember the autistic child might not look as if he is paying attention, but keep on going and he will learn it.
When discouraged, focus on the immediate objective and find comfort in the snowball effect
Runners train themselves to focus on a close by milestone to get to first if they only think about the final destination of the race, they get discouraged and slow down, but by focusing on the very next tree, or the nearby pebble they keep on running.
For a parent who is not autistic, it can be painful to go over so many steps, and watching so little progress, still no friends! But take comfort knowing that autistic children are notorious for not showing any progress, and suddenly, success! They are processing and will show progress in their own time.
The beauty of these processes is that each step builds on the previous one, so everything starts happening easier and faster as you move along, the learning snowballs and before you know it magic, and little friends, can happen.
This is a wonderful book explaining how we all bloom at our own time 🙂
This is part I of The autistic child making friends.