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When Your Aspergers Child Can't Make Friends

Some parents of children with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) may discover that their youngster seems to have difficulty making and keeping friends, and this may first become apparent in preschool when children tend to start pairing off.

If your Aspergers child doesn't ever talk about anyone in his class, doesn’t ask to bring a friend home, never gets invited to any of his peers' homes, and seems to be a loner in general preferring to play by himself, then he might be having trouble in the friendship department (his teacher may be able to confirm your suspicions).

It may be that acquiring social skills doesn't come as naturally to your Aspergers youngster as it does to other children. He might need extra help developing the empathy and consideration that make others want to be around him.  Parents may need to rehearse the most rudimentary rules of social engagement with their Aspergers son or daughter, beginning with scenarios as simple as “how to introduce yourself” (e.g., “Smile, look your friend in the eye and say, ‘Hi, my name is.... Can I play with you?’ Then play whatever your friend wants to play without insisting that the two of you play only what you want to play”).

Aspergers and HFA children need to understand when to reach out, pull back, blend in, speak up and let go. So, how can parents help their Aspergers child make and keep friends?

To support the development of friendships in your youngster’s life, try some of these strategies:

1. Bear in mind that what made it easy for you as a child to forge friendships might not be your youngster’s style.

2. Build kid’s confidence by teaching them new games or skills.

3. Children tend to make friends by doing things together, so concentrate on activities.

4. Consider hiring a well-liked same-sex “babysitter-companion” with permission to pass on subtle tips about getting along.

5. Demonstrate how to be a good friend and make friends. The best way is to model the behavior you would like to see. There are several ways you can accomplish this at home. For example: 
  • be kind, give compliments, wave to a friend, open the door for someone
  • be understanding of what others are going through by showing empathy
  • teach your kids to accept what can't be changed by working hard to change the things that can
  • have a sense of humor about yourself and your shortcomings
  • help your youngster realize his own strengths
  • listen to your youngster without criticism.

6. Emphasize good manners at home, including how to apologize or do favors for other children.

7. Encourage children to join Scouts.

8. Encourage having a few friends more than only one ‘best’ friend to avoid upset feelings when that youngster is unavailable or wants to play with others.

9. Even an Aspergers youngster with average social skills may turn inward while experiencing major disruptions (e.g., parents' divorce, serious illness or death in the family, move to a new town, etc.). As much as possible, you should prepare your child for the changes by talking about what's happening and what to expect. For example, if you're moving, check out the new teacher, school or town in advance. Very gently encourage your son or daughter to take chances while praising him for little accomplishments. Also, have the expectation that things will work out.

10. Giving kids lots of unstructured time to play is important because they learn the social skills they need so they can keep playing and have fun.

11. Include your youngster when talking to people out of his normal range of peers. For example, take him to visit a neighbor, or bring him along to the dry cleaner. The more he is exposed to interacting with all kinds of people, the more he will learn to do the same.

12. It’s hard to go wrong with kindness, so encourage your youngster to express caring feelings for others.

13. Offer a variety of opportunities for play and socializing. Host friends over for play dates or lunch. See if you can participate in a carpool and sign-up your youngster for group activities (e.g., art, drama, dance, etc.). Exposing him to different areas of play will help him learn to socialize.

14. Remind the extremely shy or anxious child that everyone experiences rejection, and give him tips on recruiting friends (e.g., seek out the friendliest classmates).

15. Stay balanced when things are hard. Go ahead and empathize with your youngster’s pain, but keep it in perspective. Making friends is a lifelong process and will have its “ups and downs.” Pain, unfortunately, is a part of it. All kids will experience some form of ‘normal’ social pain in their friendships. We can support them by listening and acknowledging their feelings. Talk about your concerns (regarding your child’s lack of social skills) with other adults who can support you (e.g., a coach, teacher, friend, family member, etc.). You never want to share your anxiety about your child’s lack of friends with your child, so find someone who can help offer insight about your youngster or consult with professionals.

16. When it comes to training Aspergers kids, you will want to steer clear of humor as a relationship-builder, because it’s a subtle skill that often backfires into annoying other children.

17. Support your youngster’s choice of friends and welcome them to your home. Try to get to know his friends and their parents.

18. Talk to the youngster’s teacher. The teacher can really offer some perspective about whether this is a temporary glitch or is it a more ongoing problem or something typical for this age.

19. When your youngster acts in an especially friendly way, name it — and let him know you’re impressed.

20. Lastly, coach your Aspergers youngster on the following social concepts (using words that he or she will understand, of course):

The Nature of Friendship:

  • Similarity and proximity. School–aged kids have a tendency to develop friendships with others who share similarities with themselves (e.g., gender, age, race, IQ, social status). As the youngster grows older, these traits become less important and he establishes friendships based upon similar interests and attitudes. As adolescence emerges, friends begin to seek conformity by dressing similarly and listening to the same music.
  • Reciprocity and support. All kids must share a degree of mutual respect and affection for each other if the friendship is to be lasting and meaningful. There needs to be a degree of equity between the two friends and a willingness to assist, guide, or comfort each other as necessary.
  • Mutual activities and shared interests. Childhood friendships often develop during school or extracurricular activities. Kids who are involved in such activities (e.g., sports teams, stamp clubs, chorus, drama, etc.) have common interests and values and often are quite compatible as social partners.
  • Intimacy, affection, and loyalty. Kids desire friends who can be trusted. They want their friends to share thoughts and feelings sensitively, and they demand loyalty from them. They need to feel that the friend will keep confidences and shared secrets. They also expect that the friend will not criticize them to others and are deeply hurt when this occurs. Kids expect the friend to view the relationship as a true commitment. Most childhood friendships that dissolve are destroyed by a perceived lack of commitment by one of the parties.


Nonie De Long said...

This has been the most difficult of raising a child with Asperger's. It is not made easier by teachers that damage fragile self esteem and school boards and clubs that are exclusivist. I've found it to be heartbreaking. Very good suggestions, but very hard to address, in my experience.

Anonymous said...

We noticed in Kindergarten and first grade that my son had one really close friend. When that friend switched schools mid year in first grade, our son was lost. He didn't know how to talk to anyone else even though I kept telling my son before he left that he had to make multiple friends. Having the Aspergers diagnosed now it makes more sense what really happened. He has a couple of friends now but no one as close as that first close friend.

Anonymous said...

I find that homeschooling during the middle grades is a good option, as the parent can better supervise peer interactions and prevent some of the negative social experiences. YMCAs often have homeschool classes, and there are co-ops in some areas and art classes, etc., to enable positive social interactions.

Anonymous said...

I agree this is one of the most difficult and I had no idea my son was Aspberger's till recently and he is 15. Now everything makes sense to me. He only has 2 really close friends and does not like to socialize at church in the youth group but prefers just sitting in church with us. I hope he makes new friends this coming school year.

Anonymous said...

I grew up with a sister who most definitely has Asperger's (she was never formally diagnosed, but it wasn't easily identified or discussed 35+ yrs ago. Watching her go through the struggles of finding same-age friends was heart-breaking. I now have two young children of my own who both exhibit a high degree of social anxiety, and all of the feelings of shared pain and sympathy I had for my sister is fresh again. I don't have any suggestions other to say I understand the pain and frustration parents of children with Asperger's go through. Hang in there, and love your kids the best you can!

Anonymous said...

This has been a big issue for my 7yr. Old Asperger son. I often have to remind him to talk about what other kids want to talk about and to play games others want to play. He often fogets this give and take aspects of friendships. Boy scouts has been a big help as well this is a group that learns to work together no matter what their differences are and there is no ongoing competition.

Dominique Denardo said...

This is the most tragic aspect of Aspergers. Watching my son excruciating. He is 10 recently lost his best friend. The friend couldn't take the screaming, crying, yelling, controlling, bossiness and lack of reciprocity. My son has been in social skills/social thinking groups for 5 years and he still doesn't get it.

Sara Woods said...

My son is approaching 13, he has aspergers. Making friends and keeping them is very difficult for him. His best friend at school has been name calling him and it has pulled my son down into a depression. My some takes things very literally and thinks with his heart. I am in close communication with the teacher at his school that actually is working with both boys. Any help is appreciated and I will try some of these methods. I believe I have done this but I'll try different variations to see what works. It is truly devastating to watch your child in this much pain.

Lisa said...

My 8 year-old son with AS gets very attached to friends. It is difficult for him to focus on more than one friend. He speaks obsessively about his video games although we are encouraging other interests and providing opportunities for other activities. The friend in his class shares his intelligence and enjoys video games as a common interest as well. He gets put off by my son's preoccupation with video games and must have said something to his parents. The friend's parents have now labeled my son as someone who "doesn't do anything" and as a "bad influence". They have told their son not to play with my son and said they do not like him. My son's friend than comes back and tells my son what his parents have said. It is very hurtful to my son and to us and it is not true.
I don't know what to do. I've talked with my son about how wonderful he is and how it is bad manners and untrue for his friends parents to say such things and for his friend to repeat them. I want him to know he has not done anything wrong and I want the negative feedback to stop. Does anyone have a similar experience? I'm thinking of speaking to the parents and perhaps the teacher. The problem is obviously the parents, but I don't want my son to continue to hear hurtful things. Should I explain that my son has AS? Any help would be welcome. Thanks!

Clare Crooks said...

Making friends with other parents when your kid is the one taking off his clothes or spitting or lashing out is impossible. No way to model any behaviour, we are social pariahs. The only time I've been able to see it nearly working was when we met the local homeschool group by chance. Open minded parents and chilled out kids put my son at ease and he had a great time. Not been repeated since.

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