As a parent of an adult child with autism, one of my goals has always been to find as many opportunities as possible to improve my son’s social skills. All parents want their children to make and establish friendships, but for those on the autism spectrum, it is one of the most difficult aspects of the disorder. Our children experience so many challenges when learning and trying to interact with their peers: anxiety, behaviors, language/communication delays, and just not having the skills to relate to those around them. I remember being out in the community with my son and watching other children interact with one another so naturally. They would come together for imaginary play, laughing and running as a group. But my son sat alone as far from them as he could get, in his own little world. It was heart-wrenching. But there is good news. Along with the support of speech and occupational therapy, there are practical strategies that parents can use daily to help their children grow in their social skills and learn to join in with those around them. These strategies change over time and become more complex as your child gets older.
Children often learn by watching and imitating those around them. As your child’s first teacher, it is important that you model appropriate social behavior as often as possible. All children watch their parents/caregivers naturally, but kids with autism might not understand the social behavior they are observing without additional explanation. You can work on the skills that your child truly struggles to understand. Facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language are often difficult for children on the spectrum. For example, they may not be aware that when someone frowns, they are sad. These are also important for them to learn so they can show their own feelings.
Depending on your child’s way of communicating, social scenarios can be taught verbally or with social narratives, which show in words or pictures what to do in a particular social situation. These enable you to prepare for a certain situation without waiting for it to arise in real life. For some examples, see the Autism Society of North Carolina’s website. My son had very little language as a young child, so we used lots of picture social narratives to show him how to greet friends and take turns. As he grew older and gained language, we were able to move on to written sentences and more complex scenarios. Much like with modeling behaviors, a verbal description of the scenario should go along with the visual presentation of the situation. You can also present possible responses for your child to choose. They can also learn from watching and discussing videos, books, and movies with you.
Interacting with peers is difficult for children who don’t understand how to approach the situation. Acting out situations and discussing options can be very helpful. Practice skills such as turn-taking by having your child act as himself/herself and as peers, and you can act out the socially appropriate responses. Doing role play at home makes it more comfortable for your child and eases anxiety. I was able to have my son’s sister help him with role play as well, so he might be better prepared before interacting with his peers at school and in the community.
We get calls from parents looking for social groups almost daily. Some professionals offer facilitated social skills groups. But I have found that there are wonderful social opportunities right in our own communities. Think about your child’s interests. My son was interested in art at a very young age. Sometimes it can be difficult to figure out what our children are interested in, but as the saying goes, “We don’t know until we try.” Over the years, my son has been involved in many, many social activities. Currently, he is involved in art classes, yoga, baseball, basketball, Taiko drumming, taekwondo, and tennis. He also attends lots of social events such as movie nights, game nights, and cooking classes. When my son was very young, he would protest that he did not want to attend these programs, but it was not that he did not want to be there, it was that he did not know what the expectations were. I learned to prepare him by creating a social narrative explaining what the group was about and what he would be doing. Once he attended, he enjoyed them and wanted to go back.
I would encourage you to connect with your local Parks and Recreation centers and community centers. Many of these organizations offer not only regular programs for children and adults but also specialized recreation for those who need a smaller class with more support. These programs give our children a place to practice the skills they have learned. My son has gained so much from these activities, and he now has peers he calls friends.
Your child will not gain these skills overnight. Some might even take years to acquire, but our children never stop learning. They are lifelong learners. My son is now an adult, and he is still learning and growing socially. The social skills we have worked on all these years by using all these strategies and getting involved in community resources have given him so much confidence, self-awareness, and self-esteem. He also has carried these skills into other areas of his life, such as employment.
Never give up on helping your child learn. Believe they can, and they will grow.
Judy Clute, an ASNC Autism Resource Specialist in Raleigh and mom to a son with autism, can be reached at email@example.com.
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