No two of us are alike. We all have likes and dislikes, challenges and strengths. But we are similar in that we are social animals and we live in a social world. Some of us may thoroughly enjoy making social connections and others may view it as a chore or an intrusion into our world.
As adults we are often able to control how much and when we want to socialize but a child does not have that luxury. Young children are often placed in environments that force them to socialize which can be a good thing. But for a child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder who may be socially challenged, an environment such a school just might be their worst nightmare and largest source of anxiety.
Attending school immerses children into a social milieu that requires them to learn how to stay afloat whether they want to or not. When you have a child that struggles with developing social relationships or understanding social cues school can be a cold, lonely and anxious place. "Will I fit in and make a friend this year or will everyone ignore me or make fun of me?" is often a question that can loom in the mind of any child as they begin a new school year.
Children on the Autism spectrum are often more vulnerable to being picked on and more resistant to acquiring and honing essential social skills. Some children with Autism enjoy being in their own little world and need to be drawn out to be social. Many long to be socially accepted yet do not have the social skills necessary to develop friendships. As teachers, parents and professionals we need to teach children to acquire the social skills necessary for making friends but we also need to be sensitive to their needs and challenges.
Many of us could probably tell a story about an awkward or uncomfortable experience with group dynamics in a classroom situation. Remember what your response was when the teacher would say "get into groups"? Did you freeze or feel obligated to befriend someone to join a group so you didn't stand out? What about the fear of being the last one picked on a team or actually experiencing it?
Unfortunately, school children on the Autism spectrum often deal with this on a daily basis. So how can we make the process of social interaction in a school setting more pleasant and less stressful for those who find it awkward and uncomfortable to make friends?
We cannot sit back and expect that the acquisition of social skills will happen through osmosis. Making friends is not a default setting we are born with. Despite the fact that social learning automatically begins at birth through observation and experience, deliberate instruction and practice in making and keeping friends should begin at a very young age. Here are some basic concepts to start with.
Define a friend - Talk to your child about what makes someone your friend? What does a friend look like, act like, sound like, and make you feel like?
How to choose/make a friend - Discuss the importance of having similar interests and taking an interest in what the other person does. Ways to be kind, courteous and appropriately inquisitive about what they do.
Conversation starters - Explore what to say when you meet someone and want to develop a relationship with them. Give your child pointers and practice with them at home.
How to keep a friend - Unfortunately, children with Autism often lack Theory of Mind which makes it difficult to teach respect, empathy, turn taking and perspective but it is vital maintaining friendships.
Ask "what if " questions whenever the opportunity arises. While watching television or movies with your child, stopping the action and inquiring what he might do in a similar social situation can push him to think socially.
As these skills are being taught it is important to practice, practice, practice. Giving children ample opportunities to apply friendship-making skills is extremely important and cannot be overdone. Experts have proven that it is good for children with special needs to be integrated with normally developing children in various settings. Left to their own devices, a group of children on the Autism spectrum might easily retire into their own little worlds. Children with Autism should be exposed to various social scenes that offer opportunities to interact.
In addition to applying friendship making skills in the school setting it is often less stressful for some children to practice in situations that are less contrived and more relaxed. Exposing children to various options - new activities where social skills need to be practiced such as team sports, art lessons, theater camp, local environmental programs, community service projects, the YMCA or mentorship opportunities are all great choices.
Remember that even though your child may not survive the social scene at school, all is not lost. If you have been persistent in teaching and modeling the basic social skills necessary for creating relationships throughout his or her school experience your child will have a better chance of social success in adulthood when one can choose the social situations they are most comfortable with.