Friendships can be a difficult area to negotiate, and even for us as typical adults our friendships change and metamorphous, some quickly, some so slowly that we don’t notice the changes at first. As we grow older and wiser as people, so do our ideas and understanding of friendships grow and change. Unfortunately this is not so true for Autistic Spectrum people, for as is the nature of AS, change is difficult to understand and comprehend.

As we teach friendship skills, we also need to teach that friendships grow and change, and so we need to guide them through the different stages of friendships as some friendships wane and others become much closer. This can be taught if you have established a mentor relationship with the student.

Tips on teaching friendship skills

Teach the child:

  • Which behaviours signal that another person is available for friendship, eg positive remarks from that person, physical proximity, positive comments directed toward the AS person, offers of help
  • How to respond to these signals
  • Which behaviours signal that he/she is available for friendship. For example, positive remarks to that person, offer of help with maths, finding a classroom, etc.
  • Conversational starters
  • To understand the differences between good natured teasing and bullying and harassment. This requires them looking at the “Big Picture” to see what is happening around them. Provide them with the skills to ‘investigate’ what happened before, during and after to help them work out which one it is.
  • That friendship comes in different shapes and forms.
  • That different friendships bring different benefits and pleasures. Use your own experiences and talk about the kinds of friendships you experience. You have a friend at the gym where you work out together, but you don’t necessarily see her socially outside this arena. You have a friend with whom you have long chats and cups of coffee with. You have a friend, a work colleague that you share experiences with, but you don’t see socially outside of work.
  • That we have many acquaintances but not many true friends
  • That true friendships develop over time
  • That you can have:
    • Activity friends
    • Special interest friends
    • Intellectual friends
    • Go – to friends
    • Close to home friends
    • School friends/music friends, horse riding friends etc.

Feeding and Maintaining Friendships

Even when AS people have friendships, they sometimes forget the need to maintain that relationship and consequently it falls away.

  • Remind them to reciprocate invitations. One friendship went by the wayside because Daniel didn’t reciprocate with invitations to his own house as he thought that Jon would be bored. Daniel didn’t have all the cool stuff to play with so didn’t think to invite Jon to his house, however Jon just thought that Daniel didn’t like him anymore so stopped inviting him to play.
  • Remind them to invite friends to the movies, or to play.
  • Before the day help the child to think about what the friend might like to do and what he might like to eat, or games to play
  • After the get together ask the child what he thought his friend liked or disliked. Help him to link his thoughts with feelings.
  • Do an investigation into friendship. This will also help to develop problem solving skills.

When a friendship has formed, many ASD people will forget to maintain and reciprocate this friendship. We need to give them “ideas” and “how to instructions”.

We need to remind them with each new situation so they can build up a repertoire of scenarios where they will feel comfortable in using these “instructions”. Examples are:

  • Keeping in touch – how often do you call and talk?
    • “Thanks for coming. I had a great time playing X-Box games”
  • Seek out a friend at lunchtime. Teach him to:
    • Ask what the friend is doing, how was the soccer game etc.

Creating Opportunities for Friendships

There are many times and places where we can create opportunities for friendship. We need to find these opportunities in places where the ASD person feels comfortable and not force the situation. What I mean is that we create an opportunity while the ASD person is engaging in an activity that they enjoy.

Some examples:

  • Class times:
    • Use his special interest. Allow him to introduce someone else to his special interest so they can share ideas etc.
  • Teach them to teach others.
    • People respect and like to associate with others who are good at something. This gives them “social currency” This currency needs to be one that others respect.
  • Help friendships along by increasing their “social currency”
  • Clubs: (Special Interest)
    Match individuals with similar interests

    • Computer, Music, Entomology
    • They don’t have to be formal, but they do need to be supervised
  • Library:
    • Reading club, research club, showing other students/peers about favourite subject (but not another adult), play games
  • Rent – a – friend:
    • This is where you invite a friend to play, and when the ASD child leaves, the parent steps in and plays with the child and then when the ASD child is ready to step back in, the parent quietly moves away. This way both children have a good time and the friend will want to return.
  • Playing soccer:
    • Teach the micro skills of playing soccer
    • Use two or three students who can play to help teach him

Birthday Parties

Birthday parties can be either be fantastic, fun times or can go horribly wrong. If you prepare and plan the morning/afternoon it can be a lot of fun for you, your Autism Spectrum child and the children who come.

Key Strategies for Birthday Parties

  • Only have as many children as your child can handle.
  • Remember your child may need to take a break from the noise etc. You can step in and play with the other children to keep them occupied.
  • Have an area where your child can retreat to. (Practice this before the party)
  • Have the party in the park.
  • Better to keep it short and successful.
  • Let them know your child’s timings of games, food, cake etc. (especially if your child has very definite ideas of when food should be served etc.
  • Don’t always work at home in the early years. See if you can use the preschool kindergarten after hours.
  • Key Strategies for parties at home
  • Remember to set up rules.
  • Ensure no-one touches the child’s toys or their ‘things’ in their room (lock the door etc).
  • Have games to play that they know.
  • Have a safe place.
  • Parents need to join in and play with other children.
  • Only have decorations that the child can cope with
    • – No balloons bursting
    • – Or unexpected water fights.
  • Have themes around the child’s interests.
  • Have a sensory party, with sensory games and sensory food items.

We always had a theme party for our son. Some were pirate parties, science parties, superhero parties. We structured the parties, science parties, superhero parties. We structured the activities so that there was some rest, activities so that there was some rest, solitude, and some time out from people at the party so that our son could cope better.

Learning to share with other children

“My son lets me play alongside him
but he won’t allow his little sister anywhere near him.”

What to look out for:

  • Often, the child with autism plays with objects to block out other people. Sometimes the child just does not seem to be aware of the existence of other people.
  • He may allow others to play alongside and may even notice them from time to time, but may reject any attempt by another child to play with him.
  • When he does involve others in play, it may be very much on his terms. He may want them to take part in a very limited and repetitive way.
  • Children with autism often find being with people quite stressful. They may need time to be alone after any session where you have tried to encourage sharing.

Things to try:

  • Set up a play situation in a large space where both children can use the equipment but be apart from each other. A playground might be a good space to start.
  • When you find something the child really likes, see of you can move his sister closer, for example on a roundabout. You could start by sitting the children opposite each other. Then move them side by side for a short time, maybe just for one quick spin to start with.
  • Encourage the child’s sister to copy what he is doing without actually playing with Tell her, ‘It’s a copying game’.

Developing play skills

Before you start

  • The way in which children with autism play can be very unusual. Progress can be very slow. Pretend play may not develop, or at least not in the same way as for other children.
  • The play of children with autism is often taken over by their need for ‘sameness’. Play becomes another sort of repetitive activity, which can block out other people and cut down on all the opportunities for learning that play usually brings.
  • An important aim is to encourage more variety in children’s play so that new experience and learning is made possible. This also increases the child’s enjoyment and satisfaction. We need to remember that play isn’t just about learning. It’s also about fun.
  • Children with autism also need to learn how to play with They need to learn that people can be interesting and fun. Again, this opens up a whole range of new experiences and opportunities to learn.
  • A longer term, but very difficult aim, is to help the child towards pretend and imaginative play. He needs to be able to think flexibly in order to hold in mind two different things at the same time: what a thing is and what it is standing for.

Developing obsessions into social play

“My child spins everything he gets his hands on and he cuts us out completely.”

What to look out for:

  • It may not be why they started in the first place, but repetitive activities and obsessions of all kinds may be ways of blocking out people. People make demands, or are just puzzling, so the child tries to block them out.
  • Unfortunately, blocking out people cuts the child off from some very important types of learning.
  • Repetitive activities and obsessions can range from simple physical activities, such as spinning or flicking objects, through to wanting only to talk about astronomy or vacuum cleaners.

Things to try:

  • Join the child in his play.
  • Move from playing alongside him to swapping toys between you. Watch for awareness from him that you are there and are also spinning things.
  • You need to move towards sharing an object which spins. Once you are sure the child is aware of you and your ‘spinner’, try having one ‘spinner’ between the two of you. To start with, his turn will need to be a lot longer than yours, but slowly build up your turn and reduce his.

Understanding Your Friend with Autism Spectrum

  • I love routine and order
    • – Help me to keep things in the right order
    • – Show me how to put things carefully back on the shelf o Show me pictures of what you want me to do
  • Sometimes pictures help me to know what to do
    • – Show me pictures or show me where the pictures are on the wall
  • Sometimes I need to line things up
    • – Please don’t mess up my lines. It makes me sad and mad
  • I like things to happen exactly the same way each time
    • – When you do things the same way, I understand you better and I remember what to do
  • I get confused with some words
    • – Please tell me exactly what you and say what you mean
    • – “It’s raining cats and dogs” really means, “It’s raining very heavily”
    • – “It’s a piece of cake” really means, “It’s very easy”
  • I don’t always understand the feelings that you are showing me on your face
    • – So please tell me what you are feeling: Angry, sad, disappointed, happy…
  • I don’t always know how to talk to people. Sometimes I talk too much and sometimes not very much
    • – Please don’t think I am rude. Tell me when I am talking too much in a kind way
  • I like to be organised but I’m sometimes forgetful
    • – Help me by reminding me to pick up my pencils and put them in the pencil case, or remind me to take my things to the library when we go there
  • I can’t always look at you when I’m with you and you are talking to me
    • – Sometimes I need to look away or down. It might look like I’m not listening.
    • – I can’t hear you and look at you at the same time
    • – Always get my attention first before you start talking
  • I sometimes don’t like to be touched as it can feel like I’m being hurt
    • – To get my attention please call my name first
  • I sometimes get very focused on what I am doing
    • – I don’t always notice that you want me to play. Come back and ask me again at another time when I am ready
  • I sometimes can’t play with you so I will ignore you when you come and ask me to play
    • – Please ask me to play again later during the day when I am feeling better