HELPING YOUR CHILD TO
Children on the autism spectrum often can focus
on the 'detail' within communication but miss the overall 'plot'.
This can make them the target of bullying at school due to their
unusual behavior, language, interests and tendency to tell others
what to do. Their impaired ability to perceive and respond in socially
expected ways to nonverbal cues can lead to conflict or being ignored
by others. Children with Asperger's syndrome may be extremely literal
and may have difficulty interpreting and responding to sarcasm or
banter. A child or teen with Asperger’s syndrome is often puzzled
by this mistreatment, unaware of what has been done incorrectly.
Children on the autism spectrum, particularly
the milder end, often want to be social, but have trouble making
friends. This can lead to later withdrawal and antisocial behavior,
especially in adolescence. At this stage of life especially, they
risk being drawn into unsuitable and inappropriate friendships and
social groups. Learning how to make appropriate friendships can
minimize these problems, reduce bullying and lead to better relationships
with people who aren't on the autism spectrum. The sooner these
skills are learned, the better.
Social skills are complex and hard to learn
Non-autistic people often forget how complex social
skills are, and how long it takes to learn them even when not affected
by autism or Asperger's syndrome. Tony Attwood lists some essential
skills for children to make friends as:
• Knowing how to enter into other children's activities
• Knowing how to welcome other children into one's
own games or activities
• Recognizing when and how to help others, and
seeking help from others
• Providing compliments at the right times and
knowing how to respond to compliments
• Knowing the right time and way to offer criticism
• Being able to accept and handle criticism from
• Incorporating the ideas and suggestions of others
into an activity
• Give and take in conversation and activities
• Managing disagreement with compromise instead
of aggression or emotional outbursts
• Recognizing and understanding the opinions of
• Understanding facial expressions and body language
• Empathizing with others in both positive and
• The appropriate behavior and comments to maintain
solitude or end the interaction.
Non-autistic children usually learn all these
social skills in an unconscious and intuitive way, by observing
and interacting with everyone around them. The tendency of children
on the autism spectrum to focus on 'detail' instead of the overall
'plot' means they are usually better off learning these social skills
in a more concrete way. Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders
can be helped to learn how to make friends through two main ways:
accommodation and assimilation.
Accommodation - changing the environment
Accommodation involves changing the physical or
social environment of the child to encourage positive social interactions.
Invite friends home
Encourage friendships by inviting other children
to your home. Remember that children on the autism spectrum don't
necessarily befriend children of their own age or gender. Often
their specific interests draw them to people rather than a similar
age or being the same gender. It can be worth asking your child's
teacher if there are children at school they seem to connect with.
You can then arrange for potential friend to come to your home for
a 'play date'. Your child will usually be more relaxed in the home
environment and will be more able to work on appropriate social
Activities that encourage social interaction
An example of this is placing the child in supervised
activities such as after school care, vacation care, Scouts or a
sport, where a focus on activities with adult supervision can reduce
problems with poor social interaction. This is especially useful
if the activity centers on an existing interest or obsession of
Peer mentors have proven to be an effective strategy
for children on the autism spectrum. A classmate of similar age
who interacts positively with the child is chosen to act as a mentor.
The difficulties of Autism Spectrum Disorders is explained to
the peer mentor in an age-appropriate way, so that the mentor can
help the autistic child to learn appropriate communication skills.
Teachers and parents can guide the peer mentor in this, so that
social skills are learned in the natural environment - among other
Another example of accommodation is raising awareness
of Autism Spectrum Disorders. Parents can explain to their child's
teacher about the accommodations required in the classroom, and
in some cases, the same process could be explained to children in
the classroom. When meeting other families, it can help to explain
your child's Autism Spectrum Disorder in the hope that the parents
and their children with respond in an understanding manner to any
inappropriate behavior or communication from your child.
Linking up with children who have similar interests or are on
Children on the autism spectrum often have special
interests that few other children will enjoy, or have an equal passion
for. Parents may be able to use their parent's support group or
local autism/Aspergers association to find other children with a
similar interest, whether it be spiders, dolls or a cartoon character.
Children on the autism spectrum often find it much easier to relate
to each other than non-autistic children, particularly if they share
assimilation - developing your child's social skills
Accommodation looks at changes in the environment.
Assimilation focuses on changes in your child. In a sense, accommodation
provides the opportunities for your child to make friends - assimilation
gives your child the social skills to encourage friendships.
of mind holds that problems with not understanding that other
people think differently than themselves, individuals on the autism spectrum will have difficulties in social interactions with other
people. Children may not understand and become upset if someone
does not know the answer to a question. They will have trouble anticipating
what others will say or do in a variety of situations, and their
difficulty in understanding the thoughts and emotions of others
can make the autistic child appear self-centered, eccentric, or
uncaring. There are many strategies to help a child develop their
social skills in this area.
Picture cards to learn facial expressions and body language
Parents can draw picture cards for their child
that show a variety of emotions in faces and body language. This
can help their child to interpret the visual cues for when someone
is getting angry, bored, sad, frustrated or happy. The next stage
could be using a video camera to record someone showing these emotions
and helping your child to recognize the cues.
Learning to ask questions
Children with autism or Asperger's syndrome often
lack the 'give and take' of conversations. They may dominate a conversation,
and only talk about their own interests. A crucial skill they need
to learn is to spend time listening to others, realizing that other
children have their interests too, and asking questions about their
interests. One example is to make a game of question and answers,
where the parent and child take turns asking questions about each
other and providing a short answer. This can be explained to the
child that a good conversation is where both people get to share
the talking equally.
Another suggestion is to make a game out of asking
questions. This can be developed as a game where the child is a
famous journalist or interviewer. At first, you may give your child
a list of easy questions to ask such as age, work, school or hobbies
to suit the person they are interviewing. Asking questions can be
rewarded by the child seeing their results form the front page of
their very own newspaper, or if you have the skills and equipment,
videotape the exchange and make your own news channel. With time,
you can encourage your child to 'interview' others at school or
in the neighborhood and generalize these new listening and questioning
skills to all areas of their life.
stories were developed by Carol Gray as an effective tool for
helping children on the autism spectrum to learn many skills,
including communication skills. The stories are brief, may be backed
with visual imagery, and use set types of sentence and structure
to encourage new skills. An examples is:
It's important to look at people and stop what I'm doing when they
have something to tell me.
Sometimes grown-ups tell me very important things that I need to
If I don't look & listen I might miss something important and
make the grown-ups angry.
I know it's wrong to keep doing what I'm doing when grown-ups want
me to listen.
I will listen to grown-ups when they talk to me.
here to learn more about using social stories.
Role plays can give a child the time needed to
learn general social skills. The parent can role play the typical
situations their child may have trouble with: initiating a conversation,
joining in another child's activity, or inviting another child to
play a game. In real life, this can be very difficult for the child
as time may be necessary to interpret facial expression, understand
the body language and figure out appropriate responses. A role play
gives the child all the time needed to work through these processes,
and hopefully increase their speed and social skills with practice.
Where a family has a video camera, it can be worthwhile to videotape
these role plays. Most children with autism or Asperger's syndrome
learn more effectively in a visual way, so replaying the role play
on video can be an excellent way to show your child what they did
well, or analyze what didn't go so well. Remember to be very encouraging
and supportive when reviewing the video footage! You can also freeze-frame
on relevant bits to give your child time to analyze facial expressions
or body language.
helping your child to choose friends
Children with autism or Aspergers syndrome often
appear to have a one-dimensional view of their own personality or
that of others. When asked to what they or themselves or other children
are like, descriptions relating to height, age or appearance are
used. If personality is described, it will tend to focus simply
on whether someone is 'nice' or not.
Non-autistic children usually are quick to intuitively
learn about the personalities of others. They pick up the inclination
of other children to be chatty, naughty in the classroom, friendly,
manipulative or angry. Children on the spectrum often miss these
cues and may try to form friendships with children who aren't suited
to them. Tony Attwood recommends using the popular Mr. Men stories
by Roger Hargreaves which describe a range of personality types
such as Little Miss Chatterbox and Mr. Nosey and Mr. Grumpy.
A visual way parents can help their child to identify
the personality traits of other children is getting their child
to select an animal they feel represents someone's personality.
Parents can play a constructive role in their child's life by encouraging
them to analyze the personalities of others so that they can choose
more appropriate friends as they get older.
to read about a five-step model for helping your child make and
Adults on the autism spectrum still wrestle
with many of these issues. Useful insights for parents can be gained
by reading Marc Segar's Survival
Guide for People Living with Asperger's Syndrome. Marc was an
adult on the spectrum who wrote this guide for others, with a focus
on social skills for living in a non-autistic world.
Click here for the full
range of autism and Asperger's fact sheets at www.autism-help.org
Click here to go to the
Adults On The Spectrum page for how late teens and adults can improve
their social skills.
This autism fact sheet is licensed under the GNU