“Peer acceptance and friendships can benefit the child in terms of providing a second opinion to the motives and intentions of others.....an effective emotional monitoring and repair mechanism, especially for emotions such as anxiety, anger and depression....guidance on what is appropriate social behaviour, help develop self-image and self-confidence, and can act as personal counsellors...
...not having friends makes the child vulnerable to being teased and bullied” Attwood (2007)
The social skills involved in making and maintaining friends are complicated, develop as a result of our interactions with others throughout our childhood, and continue to develop as adults. Lack of friends or involvement with peers lessens the opportunities to observe and practise the skills required. This in turn can make it even more difficult to develop friendships
Within a relationship individuals with autism provide a friend who is loyal, reliable, often with exceptional memory for events, dates and names, and a sense of humour. They may also enjoy sharing information about common interests.
However some young people with autism can appear withdrawn and solitary, which may be through choice but does not mean they do not want a friend – perhaps they just don’t know how to go about it. Others, often more able, may be motivated to 'fit in' with the crowd, and have a desire for friendship but lack knowledge and experience of the incremental and complex way in which friendships develop.
Some young people may have a focus on developing friendships. They may not understand that friends sometimes want to be with others and might react quite rudely become disterssed or end the friendship if this occurs. Wanting to have a friend, they can misinterpret kindness for friendship and may become attached to someone who does not consider them a friend. Inflexibility of thought and a lack of appreciation of another’s feelings may result in rejection.
Lack of social awareness can make young people with autism socially vulnerable to bullying.
Children and young people who have similar interests may develop friendships based on these. However we sometimes expect, or are keen for young people with autism to make friends through participating in clubs or other team or group social activities. This can become a negative experience if we do not take account of the level of interaction the young person is happy with and can sustain in other situations.
It is important to provide practice in the skills and understanding of what is involved in friendships. They might include
- Sharing, turn taking, waiting, winning, losing
- Social rules related to specific activities
- The perspectives of others involved in the activity
Remember that rote learning or scripts for social skills are not useful unless transferred, reinforced and practised within realistic experiences.
- Interpret and explain social situations using eg social stories.
A buddy can be a role model, remember - they will require guidance.
Often young person will relate better to a Senior pupil rather than someone in same year group.
- Teach and remind about sharing and turn-taking in many different contexts.
Practice, initially with an adult, games which can be played with peers
Introduce current playground ‘terminology’.
- Encourage and model opening lines of conversations and how to end them.
- Help recognise the consequences of words or actions towards others.
It may help to reflect on their own response to a similar situation or give clear explanation of how someone else might feel or respond. It is usually less useful to question; ’How do you think .....felt when you did that?’ - this requires an ability to reflect on someone else’s thinking.
- Help distinguish between teasing and bullying, and when and how to ask for help.
Role play (or use puppets or toys) to act out a situation
Use comic strip conversations to encourage compromise or better ways to resolve an issue.
Identify a quiet or ‘safe’ area
- Any young person can remove themselves from stressful situations, consider especially less structured situations – playground, dining area etc
- Consider developing Circle of Friends
- Include a peer awareness program within the school.