Learning how to make friends is often one of the trickiest parts of childhood, and it can be especially difficult for those with autism who struggle with basic social skills.
Things like turn taking, initiating conversation and interpreting body language, facial expressions and hand gestures may need to be explicitly taught and practiced to become second nature for kids on the spectrum.
“A lot of time with our kids, social skills are their biggest deficits,” says Holly Barszcz, a board certified behavior analyst and clinical director at Cornerstone Autism Center. “Being by their peers makes them uncomfortable, so they’re happier just being by themselves.”
Dr. Scott Bellini, an associate professor of psychology and director of the Social Skills Research Clinic at Indiana University, compares the anxiety some children with autism feel in social situations to the fear many adults have of public speaking.
“Children with ASD often describe an anxiety that resembles what many of us feel when we are forced to speak in public – increased heart rate, sweaty palms, noticeable shaking, difficulties concentrating, etc.,” writes Bellini in his article Making (and Keeping) Friends: A Model for Social Skills Instruction. “The typical coping mechanism for most of us is to reduce the stress and anxiety by avoiding the stressful situation. For children with ASD, it often results in the avoidance of social situations, and subsequently, the development of social skill deficits.”
So how can parents help kids with autism improve their social skills? Experts says it’s important not to expect too much too soon.
Cornerstone recently revamped its social skills groups, which focus on teaching kids how to appropriately interact with their peers. Barszcz says therapists meet children where they are – sometimes that means simply practicing being in the same area with or making eye contact with another child. “For some of our kids, it may be just being in the same room as a peer for two minutes, working up to 10 minutes,” Barszcz says. “You have to start small. If you just take them to a busy playground with other children, that isn’t enough to make them want to go up to other kids and play with them.”
Social stories and practicing simple scripts can help children better know what to expect when it comes to common social interactions. Playing alongside a sibling, even if they’re not interacting, can also prepare a child for being close to peers, says Barszcz.
Finding a common interest
If your child has a favorite activity – cars, trains, chess, art – consider using this interest to practice social skills.
Children’s Therapy Connection in Indianapolis offers LEGO Skill Builder Clubs that give kids with autism the opportunity to connect while building. Lead occupational therapist Joan Goldfarb, who helped develop the program, explains that children work in pairs, with one designated as the engineer and the other as the builder. “It gives them a safe environment to practice those skills – looking at friends, telling them how to do things, describing LEGO pieces and asking questions,” she says. “It’s amazing how many kids love LEGOs, and those friendships really grow when it revolves around that interest.”
Encouraging and praising
When your child makes progress, no matter how small, experts say it’s crucial to encourage and reward their positive social skills.
“If they even come near another peer, reinforce that. If they sit next to someone or look at other peer’s artwork, even if it’s only for a few minutes, reinforce those small steps they make,” Barszcz says. “Those social skills are very important because improving those will lead to other milestones.”