Why Autism Makes It Harder For Your Child to Make Friends

Why Autism Makes It Harder For Your Child to Make Friends

Takeaway: Children with autism struggle to communicate and make friends, but with the help of a specialist, you can help your child learn the skills she needs to socialise and fit in better.

‘Autism’ is a useful label to describe children with a certain type of developmental difference. But it’s a highly nuanced term.

All children with autism aren’t the same. And that’s why we think of them as being on the autism ‘spectrum’ (autism is officially called autism spectrum disorder [ASD]). Their brains have developed differently — i.e., ‘atypically’ — but each child will experience this difference in a largely unique way. They’ll have their own set of strengths and weaknesses that they’ll need to navigate, and a unique personality, too. So, just like a colour spectrum, autistic traits express themselves in subtle shades, and caregivers need to be tuned into these nuances.

Children with autism primarily have differences to do with language, interests, and routines.

Because their brains have developed differently, children with autism often struggle to learn languages. That is, they might have trouble picking up language rules and understanding the flow and rhythm of speech. For example, a child might continuously repeat a word she hears (i.e., a speech pattern called echolalia), use words/phrases that don’t fit the conversation she’s having, or speak with a monotonous tone of voice. Aside from this language issue, children with autism also tend to have highly specific interests like playing with toy trains, learning about dinosaurs, or mastering a musical instrument. (Interestingly, they’ll likely have a great vocabulary to do with their interests and passions, even if their general vocabulary is limited.) They also tend to love routine and order, and get disturbed with even the smallest changes. For example, they might have a meltdown if they’re given a different type of breakfast or have to take a new route to school. Learn more about autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

The biggest challenge that children with autism face, though, is communicating and getting along with others.

All of us want to have friends and feel understood — it’s how we process and express our feelings, needs, and ideas. And this means developing our communication and social skills. You’ll notice that this development starts very early on. For example, babies try to copy Mummy’s speech patterns by babbling, begin to look at people who are talking to them, smile when others smile, and so on. This sort of social exchange interests most children and is a massive part of what keeps them happy and mentally healthy. Children with autism struggle to socialise, though. As we’ve seen, they often have trouble with language, making it harder for them to express themselves. But more importantly, their brain differences mean they struggle to understand the complexity of social interactions, body language, and nonverbal communication. For example, they’ll find it hard to understand subtext (like with sarcasm or jokes), decode facial expressions, make eye contact, take turns playing (or talking, in conversations), and so on. These sorts of skills are the building blocks of rich and fulfilling friendships, and so children with autism regularly miss out on social comforts.

While a child’s family might adapt to her social differences, her friends might be less patient.

Children with autism are likely to annoy and frustrate their classmates because of their differences. For example, they might start talking about random topics that don’t interest anyone else, dominate the conversation, refuse to change subjects, talk really loudly, repeat themselves often, and so on. So if their classmates don’t yet understand autism, they’ll probably walk away fed up and overwhelmed. And this leaves the child with autism feeling confused and abandoned, but not knowing what went wrong.

Obviously, these experiences can cause emotional trauma. So, what can we do to help?

There are three general strategies we can use to help children with autism. The first is to train them to behave ‘appropriately.’ We’d do this by teaching them social skills and rewarding them (via tokens, praise, etc.) for using these skills. Here, the child is a passive learner. The second strategy is to let the social skills themselves be the reward. For example, if a child learns to ask for a drink politely, her reward will simply be getting the drink (which she wouldn’t have got without being polite). Here, the child is a more active learner because she’s motivated by the built-in benefits of the lessons, rather than an artificial, external reward. The final, most organic teaching strategy involves letting the child direct the learning. So, a teacher might set up a range of activities and let the child choose the one she wants. And as the child settles in, the teacher will direct her attention to useful skills and lessons. Here, it’s the teacher who follows the child’s lead, instead of the other way around.

Most parents and caregivers find that a child-focused teaching style works best.

Because each child with autism is unique, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. And so, it’s worth nurturing the skills and interests your child already has, rather than trying to force her into a predetermined social mould. Especially one that makes her feel stifled and uncomfortable. For example, if she loves a particular game, use that playtime as a teaching tool. Perhaps you want her to be less aggressive? Well, as you play, you could imitate (and thereby reinforce) all her non-aggressive actions. But you won’t react to the aggressive ones — like throwing her toys in frustration. By engaging with your child, you’re giving her the message that she’s okay being herself, but you’re also subtly modelling the kind of behaviour you want her to learn. You could also slip in other mini-lessons — for example, making a lot of eye contact, varying the pitch and speed of your speech, using body language like nodding your head in agreement or pointing at her toys, and so on. The point here is that you’re fitting yourself into your child’s world and doing all your teaching from in there.

Above all, try and be as attentive, patient, and appreciative as you can.

It’ll take time to help teach your child the skills she’ll need. And along the way, you’ll need to make small, incremental changes. For example, if your child doesn’t speak much at all, you’ll try and communicate using single words — e.g., saying ‘car’ when you’re playing and want her to pass you the toy car. But if she does speak a bit, you’ll then start using short phrases like ‘push car.’ For older children who find it hard to follow instructions, small changes like breaking up what you want to say into shorter points will help. And you could even explain tasks better by using visual aids and drawing pictures. (Visual daily schedules, in particular, can help your child cope with change by giving her easy-to-understand images of what’s going to happen next. This can be very calming for children with autism when forced to get used to a new routine.)

If all of this seems overwhelming, don’t worry. The right kind of specialist can help.

Remember to celebrate your child’s strengths, not just try to ‘fix’ her weaknesses. For example, she could have problems with communication but might also be witty and goofy, a passionate learner, have an eye for detail, and not care about what other people think of her. It’s all about how you look at it. That’s why it often helps parents to focus on their child’s strengths and hand over other aspects of her care to specialists. At The Ed Psych Practice, we offer face-to-face and online assessments, consultation, advice, and problem-solving strategies for parents, nurseries, schools, and universities in London. We have psychologists, paediatricians, and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support. To consult with us or set up an appointment:

Want to see how else you can help your child? You might enjoy some of our other posts.

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