Two small girls playing with autumn leaves on the ground and laughing
18 Jan

Skills to make friends

Making friends is a very common goal for parents of children with autism. Once their child starts to talk, making friends becomes the parent’s next priority.

Learning to make friends is a surprisingly complex skill. There are so many things involved in making friends.

Making friends means different things for different children. Some children can make friends by just sitting next to another child and playing alongside them in the sandpit. Other children can play chasing and ride bikes together. Children with more developmental ability can make friends by playing with toys and talking about what they are doing. Some children can act out stories and their favourite TV shows with a group of children. The goal of making friends should match your child’s developmental ability.

Let’s have a look at the skills that support making friends:

Sensory Processing:
Children need to be able to accept touch from other children and cope with the noise that other children make. They need to stay regulated in an environment that can often have a lot of visual and auditory information. They need to be alert and observe what is happening around them.

Receptive Communication:
Making friends requires a basic ability to follow simple, familiar instructions. It helps if a child can understand some basic questions as well. When children are playing with toys with their friends or acting out stories, they will need to understand longer, more complex instructions and questions.

Expressive Communication:
Children need some form of communication if they are going to make friends. However, they do not always need to talk. They can use gestures and even signs to communicate. Most children are very tolerant of children who do not talk. Making friends that involve more complex play skills usually requires talking.

Joint Attention:
This is a critical skill needed to make friends. Children need to look at other children and watch what other children are doing. When the other child tries to get their attention, they have to be able to respond by looking at the other child. If they don’t respond, the child misses so much information about the play and what the other child is doing. The lack of joint attention is often what sets our children with autism apart from their peers.

Along with joint attention, imitation is one of the more critical skills needed to make friends. Children must be able to imitate what other children do. When you watch children in a playground, they frequently imitate each other. If a child can imitate simple play and activities, they can make friends. However, children who have more ability but lack the ability to imitate friends will find it much harder to make friends.

Social Skills:
Children need some basic emotional development and social skills to make friends. They need to respond to others and share smiles when they are having fun. They need to have the ability and interest in simple social games which can include playing with bubbles, playing with balls and listening to music or songs. As they develop more social skills, children need to take turns, initiate play and understand different feelings.

Gross Motor Skills:
Most children with autism have reasonable gross motor skills. They should be able to navigate a play area without walking through other children’s toys. It helps if they can get on and off some playground equipment. Basic catch, throw, run and jump skills help. One of the areas that does impact gross motor skills is postural support. Some children can have quite good gross motor ability, but their postural support is limited, and this stops them participating in activities with friends.

Fine Motor Skills:
The impact of fine motor skills on making friends is often overlooked. Nearly every play activity requires some fine motor skills. It could be putting Duplo together, playing with cars on a car ramp or cooking in the home corner. Children need to be able to manipulate the toys and objects that their friends are playing with.

It doesn’t matter how good a child’s communication skills, play skills or motor skills are, if there are behavioural challenges then other children don’t want to play with children with autism. Most of the time, the challenges with friends revolve around sharing toys and taking turns. Our children need to understand how to share and take turns, but they also need to stay calm when it isn’t their turn, or the play does not go their way.

How do you help your child make friends?

All the areas we discussed above are part of most early intervention programs. Your Speech Pathologist, Occupational Therapist and Psychologist (or Behaviour Therapist) will target these in the clinic. However, the clinic situation is not always the best place to work on making friends. This is for a few reasons:

  • Most of the children in group programs also have additional needs. Research supports using typically developing peers to learn to make friends.
  • The clinic situation is a more controlled environment. It is not as busy or as loud, and a therapist is always on hand to prompt a child. At preschool, or in the playground, it is more chaotic.
  • Clinic programs are scaffolded by highly trained therapists. Some children are fortunate to have highly trained teachers in their preschool or day-care, however, this does not happen often. There is a big gap between a highly supportive clinic program and the local playground.

What is the answer?

Parent training is one of the best options for children who are ready to make friends. When parents are skilled up on supporting their children to make friends, this gives the child support across many environments. The parents can support their children at the playground, at birthday parties, and on playdates. The research shows that parents can effectively teach their child many skills if they receive the correct training from a therapist. This training requires the parent to be coached ‘live’ by a therapist while the parent is doing various activities with the child. You cannot learn how to help your child make friends by reading handouts or by being given ‘tips’ by a therapist. There are a number of programs that use evidence-based parent coaching to teach children to make friends. Ask your therapist if they have been trained in parent coaching.

Susan Marden
Speech Pathologist
One on One Children’s Therapy

Certified Early Start Denver Model Therapist

You might be interested in