Summer vacations can create a lot of stress for parents of children with autism or Asperger’s. If children are at home instead of school, there are a lot of “empty” hours to fill. Other kids typically seek out social opportunities with neighbor children or friends they can visit. Our kids on the autism spectrum don’t generally do that.
Parents of children with autism and Asperger’s want their children to have friends. More than half of the parents in a survey about services for children with autism and Asperger’s reported that their children played with no one outside of school.
One of the most common services that parents request for their children with autism and Asperger’s is social skills groups. There is a perception that after teaching some skills in a group, the child will then be able to have the social skills to give them friends.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work quite like that. Please understand. Each situation or learning setting offers the opportunity to learn some skills.
Here’s what that means.
They can learn specific skills in one situation or social environment, but they may not easily transfer those skills to other settings or situations or people. They benefit from experiencing a variety of social experiences.
Think about social opportunities
It’s helpful to think about social skills in a different way. Instead of trying to teach random social skills, there is another way to approach this. Instead of focusing on social skills in a group, try to think about social opportunities. That change in thinking will change how you identify friends.
Who are friends?
Are all your friends exactly your age? What do you have in common with your friends? Our children with autism and Asperger’s may have more opportunities to develop friendships if we view friendship differently.
Here are some examples
Jenny’s friend is an elderly lady, Grandma Betty, who lives nearby. Grandma Betty has a cat. Jenny likes to go visit Grandma Betty and bring some treats for the cat. Grandma Betty is a very caring friend who loves to talk with Jenny about school and cats.
Stevie is eight years old. Mom hires Tom, a college age young man, to be his “friend” each week. This is not what we think of as therapy. It is more like baby-sitting. The friend does “boy” things with Stevie. They go to the park or the ball game or out to lunch. Sometimes Tom takes Stevie to his own house to spend time with his brothers and playing games. Stevie loves going with Tom and looks forward to their weekly visits.
Timmy and Mom bake cookies and take them to the nursing home. They visit an aunt and several residents who love to talk to Timmy.
And more examples
Chris is part of the “take down” team at church. After the church service he helps the men take down the folding chairs to put away. The men take advantage of the opportunity to talk with Chris about a variety of topics.
Jason’s neighbor has a dog named Burt. Jason goes to Burt’s house and asks if he can take Burt for a walk. When Jason comes to see the dog, he also talks to the neighbor about dogs.
Nathan helps his dad at coin shows. Dad is an avid coin collector and has a booth at the shows. Nathan is learning about the coins and talks to customers about what they have for sale.
Social opportunities provide opportunity
Looking beyond same age friends opens the door for a variety of people who can be great friends for our children with autism and Asperger’s.
When friends are a different age, they may be more accepting of any social differences in our students. They may accommodate our children with autism and Asperger’s better than same age friends.
Focus on interests and activities
Developing a friendship around a common interest or activity helps our children by providing a “frame” to operate within. That gives a bit of structure to help the friendship mature. If a child with Asperger’s loves Minecraft, finding a Minecraft buddy could be important.
What are other kids interested in?
Sometimes the child with autism or Asperger’s needs to learn a new skill to be able to participate with other kids. For example, if skate boards or bikes are the social tool for the neighborhood kids, learning to ride a skate board or bike might be an important goal.
Sometimes age doesn’t matter
Remember that friends can be all ages. Some of the most meaningful friendships can emerge between those who are not the same age.
Parents of children with autism and Asperger’s who want their children to have friends will find that their children benefit when they consider the variety of social opportunities they have available.