You show up early to pick up your child from school or a play date, hoping and praying they’ll be playing and laughing along with all the other kids. Instead, you find your child playing alone, having a breakdown or trying to play with the other kids but being ignored.
If you’re a mom of a child with autism, ADHD, sensory processing challenges or any other behavioral diagnosis, this may be a familiar scene. Your heart breaks as you just want them to be “normal” like all the other kids playing on the playground.
Sadly, for children with autism or other behavioral diagnoses, making friends isn’t something that comes naturally or easy. Often times, they may not possess the social skills needed to make friends or they may be aware and even embarrassment by their differences.
Regardless of the reason, it can be heartbreaking for a parent to watch as we want them to be as “normal” as possible.
But, it’s not hopeless, there are things that we can do, as parents, to help your child.
Slow and steady is the name of the game. We're guessing you're probably used to this strategy by now.
1) Begin with a smile
Start slowly. Teach your child to smile at one new classmate every day. If the other students don’t smile back, tell them that’s OK, you’ll smile at someone new tomorrow. Explain that the child may not have seen them or maybe the child was having a bad day.
At the end of the day, ask them what they remember about the students they saw. Who did they smile at? What are their classmates names or what were they wearing? The purpose is to encourage your child to observe other children around them, making them more aware of their surroundings. Praise them for any sort of social interaction they tell you about. And be specific - “I love that you smiled at Ian today. I bet that made his day.”
2) Greeting classmates
Once they've become more comfortable with smiling at their peers, encourage them to greet others in the morning when they get to school. Again, you can start slowly with a simple "hi" and as they become more comfortable, provide them with other things they can say.
At the end of the day, talk about the people they said hi to. Who spoke back? Again, explain that if someone didn’t speak back, it’s not your child’s fault. Focus on praise again, being specific to exactly what they tell you they did.
3) Starting a conversation
Once they’ve worked up the courage to smile and say hi, it’s time to work on starting conversations. You may need to give them specific words and phrases they can use. Practice ahead of time by taking turns role playing, pretending to be another child, in situations that you know they’re in at school.
Again, start simple with phrases like “I see you’re playing with legos, I like legos too.”, “I like the t-shirt you have on today.” and then they can move onto simple questions like “Would you like to play with this toy with me?”, “Hi, my name is XXXX, what is your name?” “I’m going to be a princess for Halloween, what are you going to be?”
Teaching your child to ask questions can be a good way to remove some of the pressure from your child since they don’t have to carry the conversation. Eventually, it will evolve into a more natural conversation.
As always, continue talking with your child in a casual way about the new friends he is meeting and what he has learned about them. And continue to praise, praise, praise. The more confident they feel about the classmates they’re talking to at school, the more likely they’ll be to engage with them, hopefully, eventually leading to friendships.
If your child has specific deficits like language delays, a lack in social skills, behavioral challenges, these are things that can be worked on in occupational and speech therapy. The more confident a child feels “practicing” these skills at home or in therapy, the more likely they are to try them when they’re with their friends.