The answer to a question on a survey for parents of students on the autism spectrum was disturbing. More than 50% of them said their child had no friends outside of school. Yes, disturbing.
Another child on the spectrum I wrote about recently wrote on a school paper that he had no friends.
It got me to thinking
I started to assess my own personal friendships. A few friends are close to my age, but I have a friend old enough to be my mother and another young enough to be my daughter.
I have one friend I love to go antiquing with. Another is my walking buddy. Some are actually relatives, but we enjoy hanging out. Nice neighbors are great. Some of my favorite friends are my church buddies. Some friends live close. Others far away. One friend from college lives across the country and we have to use the telephone a lot to keep connected.
Maybe we need some new definitions
I’ve talked with many parents who have shared their own experiences creating social opportunities for their children on the spectrum. Here are some things they have arranged.
- Backyard trampoline
This family found that having some awesome play equipment in the back yard served as a “magnet” for other children to come over. Mom was quick to have drinks and snacks available so her house was a neighborhood destination.
- The “Cat Lady”
Katy loved to visit an elderly lady down the street who had a cat. Katy was allowed to bring some special treats for the cat. Cat Lady was very supportive of Katy’s special needs and they enjoyed a special relationship because of the cat.
- Dad the coin collector
Dad was a coin enthusiast who went to lots of coin show to buy and sell from his collection. When Sam was old enough, Dad took him to the shows and began to teach him all the details of coins.
Sam learned to discuss coins with both vendors and customers at the shows and learned to be a helpful sales person for his dad. This type of environment gave Sam the opportunity to develop relationships with others who had a common interest.
- The camp or club
One teacher I know started a summer camp for kids on the spectrum (or it could be a weekly club). The main point that made hers somewhat different is that she divided all the participants by interest rather than age.
The Thomas the Train group was different from the Lego group. Once students were with others who had a strong common interest, it opened a different opportunity for social conversation and bonding.
- “Hire a friend”
Think this one through before rejecting it. Mom wanted her son, Evan, to learn how to be a “boy” and do “boy” things. She decided to post a job at the local university. She was looking for a male student who was studying education, psychology or some related field who wanted to gain experience with autism. Then she hired Jack to spend every Saturday with Evan. Think of it like paying a babysitter.
Mom outlined specific goals for Jack and gave him some ideas about what to do. They could go bowling, to the movie, out to lunch or any of a list of different activities to “hang out” together.
Jack and Evan began to add more activities to the list as he learned to “hang out” with Evan. This situation provided a long term relationship with lots of opportunity for developing friendship skills.
Here’s a really important point
ALL parents figure out how to create play opportunities for their children, whether their children have special learning needs or not. These are just a few ideas.
Some are lucky enough to have kids in the neighborhood. Others have to arrange “play dates” with other families or enroll their children in dance or karate or some kind of special activity.
This is one area of learning where school can’t do it all. So much of social learning is related to the child’s family, family interests and activities and family culture.
So. . .who are friends?
I’ll bet there are many people who wouldn’t think of the cat lady or the coin show people or the college student as “friends.” Perhaps, most important, does the individual on the spectrum consider them friends?
Remember, we are discussing those on the autism spectrum who tend to have difficulty with abstract concepts. Friendship is pretty abstract. There are different kinds of friends and different depths of friendship. That’s just the beginning.
How does the student or his family view this friendship thing?
Exploring the student’s “social family” could be an interesting exercise. Perhaps these kids have more friends than they realize.
Please comment below. Tell me what your experience is.