Parents of children with autism spectrum disorder, also called ASD, see that their child is often left out of social activities, robbing them of the opportunities they desperately need to learn good social skills and make friends. The problem is twofold. First ASD kids are limited in their understanding and use of typical social skills. Secondly, if you live in an area where the schools and community does not reach out and include differently-abled kids, your child will not have access to the activities/events that he or she needs.
Here’s how a parent can help their child learn social skills:
1. Educate yourself. Do you know the social skills your child has, and the ones he or she needs? Observe your child closely and learn as much as you can about him or her. Make a list of the things they need to learn. How are their conversation skills? Turn-taking skills? Can they read non-verbal body language? Decide on the most important things they need, and make a plan.
2. Model and teach explicitly. Don’t assume your kid will “pick this up” or “intuitively know this stuff”. Calmly show them exactly what you want them to do. They haven’t figured out the social rule on their own yet, so there’s no sense in getting upset about it. Teaching calmly is key. Write it down, or show a picture. I love Jed Baker’s books for pictures – The Social Skills Picture Book (Elementary) and The Social Skills Picture Book for High School and Beyond.
3. Organize the playdates yourself. Your child probably won’t be able to do this, so speak up and talk to the other parents at school, church or in the neighborhood. Make the playdate yourself. Supervise to offer support or cut the activity short if your child gets overwhelmed.
4. Over-invite. Host a birthday, swim or Halloween party, and invite lots! I’ve invited 30 – 35 kids from a class and usually 3 – 4 show up. That’s enough for a good get-together/playdate. Drive to the friend’s house. Stay for support. Early playdates should be kept short. See how your child does.
5. Provide enticing activities. Many ASD kids love to move and be active (they’re sensory-seekers!) If you’re hosting a get-together, consider a bounce house, trampoline or obstacle course. Swimming, bike riding, playground activities, sand play (at home or at the beach), scavenger hunts, parachute activities – all of these give your child and his or her playmates something fun to do while they interact.
6. Befriend other families with “special needs” children or families who are understanding and compassionate. Be sure to reciprocate when they need playdates for their kids.
7. Invite one friend to everyday activities. Going to the park, or beach? Invite one friend for your child to get more practice with social skills. See a connection there? Help your child develop that one friendship.
8.Keep it up. Don’t give in to discouragement. Keep trying. It’s hard to raise ASD kids, but hang in there. You might feel like you are not making much of a difference in the short term, but you will see benefits in the long run. ASD kids grow up to be ASD adults and many will learn. They will learn it intellectually, while typical kids learn it more intuitively.
9. Modify “your idea of fun” to be closer to your child’s idea of fun. If you have a kid whose special interest bores you, get over it! Take your kids to a museum for dinosaurs or aviation history if that is what he or she loves. Get involved with your child’s special interest and organize get-togethers around it.
10. Participate in organized clubs or sports. Try boy scouts or girls scouts, church kid’s clubs or youth group etc. Volunteer. They probably need the help and you can be nearby if you child needs support. Not every team sport will be accepting of your special needs child, but some sports can be a good fit. Tennis can be a good physical exercise while your child only has to deal with one or two people at a time. Bowling can be good if your child is sensory-seeking (those bowling balls are heavy!) and can tolerate the noise. Karate allows a student to go at his own pace, and can be a good fit for kids who need to improve focusing their attention. Snow skiing, as well as swimming/diving, have low demands to be social.