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There comes a time in every autism parent’s life when it feels like the best thing they can do for their child is to take a step back and stop pushing so hard for their child to keep up with their peers. The struggle can be hard, and it may sometimes feel like you are banging your head against a brick wall.
Getting your child to socialize from a young age is crucial for helping them grow into happy and well-adjusted adults who can fit into society. As parents, the need to practice this essential skill is not a newsflash to any of us. So, when you have a child with autism, it can be almost panic-inducing when your attempts to help them socialize and integrate keep falling flat.
There is no way around it; parenting a child with autism can be very challenging. Sometimes, we have to ask ourselves how much we need to push and intervene before we cause more damage than good. If your child is anything like mine, pushing too hard is met with more resistance. How can you facilitate friendships and social bonds if they don’t share similar interests to their peers or are shy or anxious around new people? And when can you cut yourself some slack and know that you have done enough?
A parent’s role in their child’s relationships
It’s devastating when our children are socially excluded. It’s also frustrating because you have no idea what to do. When your child has autism, it can be even more frustrating. After all, you can usually understand the cause because you see them struggle in many other social situations. When I see my child amongst peers in my mind’s eye, I often don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Perhaps they are awkward or say inappropriate things that are out of context. Or maybe they clam up when someone tries to include them. Exclusion is not always accompanied by malice – sometimes, others try to include them, but it is just so awkward. And this can also be affected by age. Adolescents are more likely to feel uncomfortable than five-year-olds when the conversation goes awry.
Children need to learn how to interact with others, but for that to happen, they need to feel safe. You may unintentionally be making them feel unsafe by constantly stepping in to help them, so it’s best to let them try to do it as independently as possible, without too much pressure.
Parents have a lot of influence on their child’s friendships. This influence can be positive or negative, depending on the situation. For example, if your child is constantly being bullied by other children, you will likely have to step in and stop it. But what if your child is just struggling to make friends because of a lack of social skills? In that case, you may feel torn on what to do.
If your child returns home from school and tells you they are being ignored, encourage them to express themselves—don’t interrupt or downplay what they say. Then, after they have finished speaking, affirm their emotions by validating them. Your child may feel incredibly alone. Make your home a sanctuary for them and tell your child they are loved and valued by their family. Of course, you are not the same as having a friend, but you can reassure your child that you’ll never leave them out, and they can rely on you.
Why Do Some Children Lack Social Skills?
Children with autism struggle to acquire adequate social skills, mainly due to their underdeveloped communication skills and inability to read social cues. As a result, even if they want to interact and participate, other children are unsure how to respond. So, it is critical to assist them in developing these skills to assimilate better and feel a sense of connection. And it’s not always autism. Some kids benefit from a little more time to grow and develop independently. Some kids might have social skills but lack the confidence to use them. Like us, kids are all different and are a collection of introverts and extroverts.
How To Help Your Child With Autism Learn Social Skills
Prepare Them Before Social Situations
The best way to help your child learn social skills is to prepare them before they face a social situation. They are much more perceptive than we realize but require more deliberate pointers and explanations of positive interactions than others. For example, when you greet the pizza delivery person and thank them for their service, it helps to reflect on that interaction with your child. Ask your child, ‘Did you see how I smiled and greeted the person who brought us our pizza? When they asked how I was, I told them I was well, thank you.”
It is possible to prepare children for unexpected situations through social stories. These narratives are used to teach socially acceptable behaviors and responses, as well as to prepare them for events that can help reduce anxiety. These can be used in all kinds of situations, such as the Fourth of July or New Year’s celebrations where children with autism are exposed to fireworks. Or at the beginning of a new school year with a new class, a social story for school anxiety can be very helpful!
Providing Social Opportunities
Another way you can help your child make friends and keep up with peers is by giving them social opportunities. Playdates and planned social activities are excellent ways to encourage your child to socialize with other children. The more your child is around other kids, the more likely they feel comfortable and want to talk to them. Some parents, unfortunately, don’t realize this or don’t give their children enough opportunities to interact with their peers.
Often, children on the spectrum are not actively invited to social events like birthday parties. This can make your child feel lonely and left out, making them feel worse about themselves and more anxious. But, you can help your child find a hobby or interest that puts them around other kids their own age who are interested in the same thing. This will give them more opportunities to talk to their peers and build friendships.
The benefit of spending time with your child
Another way to help your child become more comfortable with their peers is by spending time with them. The more time you spend with your child and the more attention you give them, the more likely they feel comfortable talking to you and telling you what’s on their mind.
If your child doesn’t talk much, try to do things that don’t require much talking. For example, you can go for walks, take them to the park, or do art projects together.
Spending time with your child gives you more opportunities to model and impart the skills necessary to form social connections. These include being able to approach others to start a conversation, listening and showing interest in the other person, and taking turns to speak.
Strategies to help kids feel comfortable around others
Some kids may just not be interested in being around others. If your child falls into this category, you can try putting them in situations where they will have to be around peers. For example, take your child to the library, a park, or the movies. They will have more opportunities to talk to other people, even if they don’t feel comfortable doing it on their own.
No two children are exactly the same, including those who are on the autism spectrum. It’s important to recognize your child’s strengths and weaknesses and to help them build on their strengths while working on their challenges. It’s not helpful to pressure your child to perform well socially if they don’t have the skills to do so. Instead, praise them for what they do well, and help them find ways to grow their confidence.
Social skills require practice, and although your child might feel uncomfortable initially, the right encouragement and support can help them overcome the fear and apprehension.
Circle Care can help you encourage and facilitate relationships and social skills with your child by incorporating social skills therapy as part of your child’s ABA treatment plans. Sign up for our newsletter to find out more or receive more tips!