Dear Ms. Lydia,
My autistic son is 12 years old and has a difficult time making and maintaining friendships. Is there anything I can do to help him?
– Mary Beth, Stafford
Thank you so much for reaching out with this important question. Since April is autism awareness month, this is a very timely topic. Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication. According to the Centers for Disease Control, autism affects an estimated 1 in 44 children in the United States today, so you are not alone in wanting your son to make friends even though he is on the spectrum. Most children with autism lack the social skills necessary to make friends, so parents need to be proactive in helping their autistic children.
For many years, it has been assumed that since autistic children lack the skills to make meaningful social connections, they are fine with being alone and they have no desire to be in social situations. It is only recently that research has made it clear that autistic children do want to have friends and do have a desire to make social connections, like your son. But how do you achieve this when often non-autistic children’s social interactions are loud and chaotic which is overwhelming to children on the spectrum and autistic children often lack the confidence to initiate the interaction. It is important to practice appropriate social skills with your son and give him the language to use to help him to stand up for himself. If the noise and chaos of non-autistic children is a stressor for your son, help him to say, “Loud noises make me uncomfortable. Can we play a different game?” Having the proper “tools” in his “social toolbelt” will aid him in making friends. It would also be helpful to write down appropriate social interactions or draw pictures because often autistic children pick up skills quicker when they can see or read what they need to do.
Another key to helping your son to make friends is identifying your son’s interests and finding peers with similar interests. If your son enjoys bowling, look for a bowling league he can sign up for. If he is a movie buff, see if his school has a film club. You also can look for day camps or even sleepaway camps that cater to children on the spectrum. Some examples of these types of camps in Virginia are Camp Gonnawannagoagin’ in Virginia Beach which is run by Families of Autistic Children in Tidewater (FACT). They offer a six-week summer camp as well as a weeklong spring camp. Another great organization is, the Richmond Autism Integration Network (RAIN), which passionately serves children diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder and other related developmental disabilities by providing autism services age 13+. RAIN offers a summer day camp as well as a social Saturday program to help autistic children with their social skills.
However you decide to help your son to make friends, remember that he needs to be having fun and enjoying the process. Explain to him what a friend is in plain terms; a friend is someone who is kind to you, and you have fun with. Friends don’t call people names and friends understand your needs and boundaries. I wish you the best of luck for you and your son!