By Raising Children Network
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Girl with autism hugging her sister credit
Making friends is an important part of every child’s life, but it can be harder for a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). You can’t make friends for your child with ASD, but you can give him the chance to meet peers and work on social skills.

The importance of children’s friendships

Friendships help your child to develop socially and emotionally. They can boost your child’s self-esteem and confidence. Having friends also gives your child experience in managing emotions, responding to the feelings of others, negotiating, cooperating and problem-solving.

ASD and making friends

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) tend to have a harder time developing friendships. This might be because they have trouble with:

  • starting and keeping conversations going
  • working out what other people are thinking and feeling
  • taking part in other children’s activities
  • understanding facial expressions and body language
  • adjusting to new social situations
  • solving social problems, such as how to sort out disagreements.

Children with ASD might need help developing skills in these areas.

I’m not asking for my child to be the life of the party, or a social butterfly. I just want him to be happy and have some friends of his own. He is a wonderful kid, and I hope some day others can see that.
– Parent of a child with ASD

Helping your child make friends

Although you can’t make friends for your child, you can give your child opportunities to meet new people and make friends of his own.

Find out what activities your child enjoys
Identify your child’s interests and strengths, and help your child connect with children who enjoy similar things, perhaps through a playgroup. Doing activities that your child enjoys will also help to keep her attention when there are other people around. 

Invite children home to play
You can encourage friendships by inviting children home or out to play. If your child goes to school, you could try asking his teacher which children are showing particular interest in him. It can also help to plan with your child the things that he might like to do with other children. Try to set up activities and games that are fun and encourage cooperative play.

You could also organise a specific activity for your child’s ‘play date’ that encourages a positive shared experience, such as a trip to the playground, museum or aquarium.

Use resources in your community
Enrolling your child in playgroups and after-school activities can also help to promote friendships. You could try swimming, Auskick, dance or art classes.

Video A story from a friend

Download video   13.5mb
In this short video, 13-year-old Aiden talks about his friend Ellis, who has Asperger’s disorder. He discusses their shared interests, and tells how he looked out for Ellis at primary school. He says Ellis is smart, friendly, and ‘more organised than me’. His advice for other kids if they meet someone with Asperger’s is to ‘just be friendly to them’.
Our article on play and friendships for children with disability has lots of information and tips on encouraging children of different abilities to play together.

Helping your child with social interactions

There are many ways you can help your child with ASD learn positive social skills.

Be a role model
Your child will learn many key social skills from watching you interact positively with others, including listening, showing empathy, problem-solving, and working through conflicts. There are many times during the day when you can show your child the kind of social behaviour you want to see – this is called modelling.

Help your child develop basic social skills
Your child needs a range of skills to make friends, including the ability to say hello, take turns, share and compromise.

You can help your child learn these skills by practising social skills at home with your child as you play games. It helps if you describe to your child the skills you’re modelling. For example, to encourage sharing and turn-taking, you might say, ‘I’m going to be friendly and share my toy car with you’, or ‘I’m going to have a turn on the swing. Your turn next’.

Using Social Stories™ can also be an effective way to teach your child skills such as communicating and joining in with others. For example, a Social Story™ for ‘Talking to my friends’ might include the following points:

  • Sometimes I want to talk to people.
  • I can talk to children.
  • I can talk to my teacher.
  • I can talk to my family.
  • I can talk to other grown-ups.
  • When people talk together, they need to be near each other.
  • When I want to talk to somebody, I can walk over to the person, look at them and say the person’s name.
  • I wait until the person looks at me.
  • When the person is looking at me, we can talk.

Recognise and praise your child’s success
Give your child lots of praise and encouragement when you see her interacting positively with others. For example, when you see your child offer a toy to another child you might smile and say, ‘Wow! That is so friendly. You shared your blocks with your friend and waited your turn’.

Rewarding your child with praise will help to build his social skills and self-esteem.

Video Interacting with other children

Download video   31.3mb
In this short video, parents of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) discuss their child’s interaction with other kids. Children with ASD can’t always communicate easily, but they can still have good mates. Parents talk about the empathy and encouragement their child gets from other children, and about growing awareness of ASD in the community. One mum says: ‘If we build this awareness and build this understanding, it builds children’s ability to be more tolerant.’

Bullying and peer pressure

Children with ASD are more likely to be the target of bullying than their peers.

There are a few reasons for this:

  • Children who bully tend to pick on children who are quiet and shy and lack friendship skills. They also tend to pick on children who have different interests, trends and styles from themselves and other kids their age.
  • Children with ASD might not know how to join in a group and might act in inappropriate ways (such as wrestling, being ‘attention-seeking’ or dominating). Other children might find this annoying, and it can end up in physical or verbal clashes with peers.
  • Children with ASD might have trouble working out who are the ‘good guys’ and who are the ‘bad guys’. This means that they might be less likely to avoid children who bully in the playground. 

To help your child avoid bullies and being bullied, try talking with her about why bullying happens and what she can do to look after herself at school and in other situations. A social story can also be a good way to explain this information to your child.

Teenagers with ASD can find it hard to socialise and make friends. They can get left out more often than their typically developing peers. You might like to read tips on how to help your teenage child in our articles on healthy school relationships for teenagers with ASD and social skills for teenagers with ASD
  • Last updated or reviewed 01-06-2016
  • Acknowledgements This article was developed in collaboration with Susana Gavidia-Payne, RMIT University.