Friendships improve quality of life as they protect against loneliness and social isolation, reduce vulnerability and risk of bullying, offer sources of support and help and give a sense of companionship.
Developing friendships, however, is a complex social skill which is difficult for some people with autism. Social communication differences, restricted interests and theory of mind differences (understanding the perspective of others) can affect the establishment of friendships.
Recommendations for developing friendships
- Facilitate the child/young person to work through different levels of engagement:
- Playing within the physical proximity of others
- Engaging in parallel play
- Sharing play materials
- Turn taking
Do not rush through the stages or miss stages; a child who is not yet comfortable playing in parallel with others will certainly not be ready for sharing or turn taking.
- Identify suitable companions for the child. If the child is quiet and very sensitive to sensory input, they are unlikely to form a friendship with a child who is very active and noisy. Instead encourage shared activities with a child who has a quiet and empathetic nature. Similarly, if the child with autism is very active and craves sensory input, they are more likely to favour friendships with children who are of a similar nature.
- Identify suitable activities for shared opportunities. A child with autism is more likely to develop friendship through favourite activities. Encourage others to join in the child’s favourite activity or find out about clubs where the child may be able to further pursue their favourite activity in the company of others e.g. Lego club, computer club.
- Identify a suitable time to develop friendships. The child is less likely to enjoy the company of others when tired or feeling overwhelmed. In school, encourage shared activities after the child has had a period of working alone, and then give some quiet time after a shared activity. At home, the child may not want to interact with others after a socially busy day at school, so it may be more appropriate to encourage shared activities later in the evening or at weekends/school holidays.
- Be realistic about what a friendship may look like. Whilst many autistic people can enjoy friendships at an emotional level, some are simply looking for companionship and someone to share interests with. Some children with autism consider their friends to be the people they sit beside when playing their computer games or building with their Lego; there may be no or limited conversation, but they consider that person a friend because they have a shared interest and keep each other company. This type of companionship can still protect from loneliness, vulnerability and being the victim of bullying.
- Some individuals with autism may find it easier to have “cyber friendships” which they have developed through social media or online gaming. These friendships may be easier to form because they are made through shared interests, and do not involve the more complex demands of face-to-face interaction. These friendships can be very genuine and valuable to the person with autism. An adult will need to ensure these online friends are of an appropriate age and that the interactions are appropriate. Online communications should be regularly monitored by an adult to ensure the child/young person is not vulnerable to any form of bullying or exploitation. If the young person arranges a face-to-face meeting at any stage, they should be accompanied by an adult to ensure safety.
- Do not assume that friendships will be formed in the playground or in leisure activities. These are in fact difficult environments for autistic people to form friendships as they are unstructured and involve a large amount of overwhelming social and sensory stimuli. Friendships may instead be formed in the classroom during a structured group activity. Interaction can take place in the playground if there is a quieter area sectioned off and the number of students in that area is limited. This reduces the sensory distractions and associated anxieties, and therefore social interaction is more likely to occur. A quiet games room in school may also be a better way to foster interactions and friendships.
- Some schools have established peer buddy systems in which classmates are educated about autism and how to interact with their peers with autism. When classmates have a better understanding of autism and how to communicate in a meaningful way, it can often facilitate the development of friendships.
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