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    Helping Children with Autism Develop Friendships

    Topics: Autism & Transitions, Advice for Parents and Caregivers, Elementary (4-12), Teen (13-17), Articles

    5 guidelines for the class or the home

    Friendships can have a major impact on wellbeing and personal growth, yet building new relationships can be anxiety provoking for adults and children alike. So, imagine how hard it can be for children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), who may struggle to perceive social cues and respond in conventionally acceptable ways. As a result, they may have few friends and shy away from conversations or other interactions. Children with ASD need opportunities to build meaningful relationships and have many wonderful qualities to offer others. Using various strategies to help children with ASD build supportive friendships can help them live happier lives and realize their potential. Below are some approaches to consider and build upon:

    1. Assess the needs of the child. While children may not have certain social skills, it is also possible that they have skills that they are not performing for various possible reasons. Discerning between skills deficits and performance deficits is crucial in determining the most suitable intervention. Skills deficits are often mistakenly interpreted as performance deficits, causing adults to unfairly blame children for refusing or lacking the motivation to perform a behavior when they actually need to develop their skills. A good way to discern between skills deficits and performance deficits is to consider whether the child can perform a task with multiple people across multiple settings. If the child is only able to initiate conversations with a parent, for example, the child may need to learn how to apply the skill across other contexts. 

    2. Consider intervention strategies to use. Depending on the needs of the child, you may want to use accommodation or assimilation strategies, or a combination of both. Accommodation refers to modifying the physical or social environment of the child to promote positive social interactions. Some examples include autism awareness training for classmates and signing up for group activities. Assimilation refers to facilitating skills development to help the child become more successful in social interactions. Focusing on one approach and not the other can set children up for failure. For example, providing children with ample opportunities to interact with others without helping them develop skills needed for successful interactions can lead to frustrating experiences. Likewise, talking to children about quality friendships without providing them with opportunities to develop them can be unproductive. The remainder of the article offers strategies of both types that you can use.

    3. Accommodation Strategies

    1. Offer opportunities related to the child’s interests. By joining clubs or participating in other social activities that they are interested in, children can meet likeminded peers, participate in activities they enjoy, and demonstrate their skills to others. Building off children’s interests can increase their likelihood of developing quality friendships as these experiences often offer built-in opportunities to start conversations and collaborate.
    2. Promote autism awareness. Helping peers and adults understand the needs of children with ASD can foster more positive interactions. For example, explaining to a class that some people with autism do not want their belongings touched or moved can help prevent negative interactions and misunderstandings. People should understand that children with ASD are not being rude by behaving differently—it is just the way they are.
    3. Find a peer partner. Supporting the child in finding a peer partner in various settings can help facilitate the child’s interactions with other children. For example, peer partners can help the child adapt to new routines and encourage other children to engage in supportive social behaviors

    4. Assimilation Strategies

    1. conversation-high-school.pngHelp them understand what a friend is. Establishing a common ground can help children understand quality relationships. This distinction is important because there are some children, for example, who think of bullies as friends. In conversations about friendship, try to be as concrete and simple as possible. For example, you can say “Friends are people who treat you nicely, ask you what you like or want to do, and say things to make you feel better when you’re having a hard time.” You can ask questions like “Do you like to spend time with someone who is nice to you or someone who calls you names?” Rather than spending too much time on conversations about friendships, it may be helpful to provide the child with many opportunities to interact with others along with the skills necessary to be successful in those interactions. Depending on the experiences and needs of the child, they may benefit more from first establishing a few friendships before attempting to understand the concept of friendship.
    2. Use scripts and visuals. Having a script or visuals can help model conversations for children. For example, a diagram can illustrate how conversations start with introductions and branch out. In the beginning, people can start with simpler questions such as “What is your name?” or “What school do you go to?” Diagrams can then show conversations going deeper with questions about favorite hobbies or school subjects. Likewise, scripts can also help concretely map out conversations for children. Learning to respond with affirmations such as “cool” and “thank you” may also be a useful social skill that practicing with scripts can cultivate. Because children with autism are often strong visual learners, show your child visually how to engage in conversation with a potential friend by downloading these free “friendship starter” visuals with scripts.
    3. Use social stories. Brief stories that are personalized for the child’s needs can help teach social skills in a non-coercive way. The story should match with the child’s comprehension level and be interesting to the child.  
    4. Role-playing or behavioral rehearsal. Roleplaying allows the child to practice social skills in safe and structured environments. Depending on their needs, children can be provided with a specific script that includes opening questions and responses with the remainder of the roleplay left open-ended and spontaneous. Alternately, children can be provided with a scenario but not with the specific script.
    5. Use video recording, playing, and editing. Video can be used to model behaviors and record the child’s development. For example, recording a child’s successful interactions can serve as a future model of success for them. For children who have been able to perform positive behaviors but struggle to put them together into the proper sequence, segments of successful actions can be spliced together into a single clip with the correct sequence. For example, children who have practiced initiating, continuing, and terminating a conversation separately may benefit from seeing the steps combined into a single conversation.

    5. Assess and modify approaches for long term success. Social skills can take a long time to develop so it is important to stay patient and plan for the future. Consider a timeline for the skills the child can realistically develop over time. Social skills also require extensive practice so instruction should occur in as many environments the child enters as possible. It is also important to consider which approaches are more or less effective and adapt as necessary. By periodically collecting data, you can track the child’s progress and make informed decisions moving forward.

    We hope you enjoyed the information in this article. STAGES also offers free downloadable resources to support teaching and learning with individuals with autism. Start with our free Picture Noun Cards and see our collection of other downloadable resources here!




    Grace Chen

    Written by Grace Chen

    Grace Chen is currently pursuing an Ed.M. in Arts in Education at Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has been a teaching artist, curriculum developer, and research assistant focusing on innovative evaluations in out-of-school time programs. She hopes to develop resonant and empowering art programs by partnering with youth in educational research and practice.