7 Ways to Help Your Tween With Autism Make Friends

Making friends can be hard. To help your child with autism build a friend group, read these seven practical tips from an expert at Healing Haven.

The tween years can be hard for all children, as this is often when social relationships become more complex. This time can cause even more challenges for kids with autism as they struggle to make social connections. As children begin to build friend groups, they may misunderstand the social behaviors of kids with autism, says Jamie McGillivary, BCBA and President and Founder of Healing Haven. Healing Haven is a Madison Heights behavioral health and autism therapy services provider for children and teens.

“The sweeping generalization that kids with autism don’t want to be social is a misconception. People make these assumptions because the social struggles kids with autism often experience can be perceived by others as disinterest,” she says. Kids with autism also tend to miss subtle nonverbal social signals, missing out on unspoken invitations to join in.

Keys to building a social group

As parents, we want our children to enjoy all the pleasures of social connections with peers. Here, McGillivary shares seven practical tips for helping your tween with autism grow a friend group — and build social skills in the process.

1. Look at both sides

Adopt a two-sided approach, suggests McGillivary. “We can teach our kids with autism what their behaviors convey so they better understand the responses of those around them, but we can also teach everyone acceptance,” she says. “If you can clearly tell someone is struggling with connecting, provide grace.” In other words, be kinder than necessary in all circumstances.

“Often times when people extend grace, they find themselves developing rich friendships with people that a larger portion of the world has not welcomed into their social circles,” she adds.

2. Start early

Human social interactions become more complex around third or fourth grade, but children can learn how to take turns, show interest in a variety of topics and attend to others early on. If your child with autism is young, start now to help build these important social skills. “It’s imperative to start thinking about this early,” McGillivary says.

3. Recognize the value in ‘finding your people’

Your goal may be to have your child blend into a mainstream setting but think carefully about limiting all social opportunities to this context. “A therapeutic social skills group with other neurodiverse individuals can transform into a big, beautiful room full of acceptance and void of judgement. Kids who are normally overflowing with anxiety may be able to relax into these social situations,” she says.

Kids on the spectrum often have special interests and it can be gratifying to your child to find someone they click with. “We do this as neurotypical people. We’re more apt to hang out with people with similar interests. Sometimes we don’t afford this luxury to our kids on the spectrum, but this is a great way to develop relationships and make friends,” she adds.

4. Activities are good

If you want your child to reap the social benefits of extracurriculars, if possible, help them become comfortable spending time with peers from a young age, McGillivary suggests. “If your 3-year-old has meltdowns, don’t cut them off from the world because when it comes to making friendships it will be much harder later down the road,” she says. “Help them learn how to be out and about with people in a respectful manner.”

If your child is a bit older, talk with your child’s BCBA about developing the skills to let you know when they’ve had enough “peopleing,” as McGillivary calls it, and respect that. Then have a goal to gradually increase tolerance for social situations.

5. Rehearse socializing at home

Provide your child with opportunities to practice their social skills. Tell them what the expectation is and walk through it at home. “We’re going to see these friends, and this is how you greet them when you see them’” McGillivary suggests, adding that you can provide “what ifs” to rehearse. “If your friend says, ‘I like to play video games,’ how will you respond?” Written social stories with pictures are another helpful tool to incorporate.

6. Use television shows

Switch on the TV, turn down the volume and see if you and your child can figure out what is going on based on nonverbal cues. This is a good exercise to return to as your child grows because after the tween stage, social interactions become increasingly complex. It allows an avenue to interpret the emotions others express and what is transpiring socially.

7. Try a therapeutic social skills group

“A social group can offer a judgment-free zone and an opportunity to meet others with similar interests and similar challenges. Kids can bond over what unites them, and it’s peppered with professionals who know how to reflect emotions,” McGillivary says.

Healing-Haven

In a therapeutic social skills group, children can learn how to converse on a deeper level, stay engaged with a variety of people and practice self-regulation. The most effective autism social skills groups have a parent component to help you support your child’s emotional and behavioral needs.

Meaningful social relationships for individuals on the spectrum begin with the understanding that they desire connection just like rest of us. A little love, patience, persistence and guidance goes a long way to helping them develop strong friendships.

Expertise provided by Healing Haven. Learn more about Healing Haven’s unique ABA therapy programs for children and teens, ages 2-young adult. Visit thehealinghaven.net.

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