From the neurotypical person’s point of view, it seems as if children, teens and adults on the autism spectrum are not interested in having friends. They do not show the same type of social cues or social behaviors and body language that indicates to others that they want to have a relationship. The adults I have interviewed make it clear they enjoy having relationships, including those who are mostly non-verbal such as Sue Rubin (“Autism is a World”). My son Jeremy often communicates about wanting to have friends. However, understanding the concept of different types of relationships and knowing the appropriate behaviors and conversations expected from the neurotypical viewpoint, does not come naturally, and can be magnified for those who are non-verbal.
Ways in which it is difficult for them to make friends:
- Many children on the spectrum are good at playing alongside, but not with, peers. They may be fascinated with a toy, but not play with it in the way it is meant to be played with, which means that peers may not connect with him.
- Games are difficult. They need to learn turn taking and waiting.
- They may be very interested in certain objects or past times that are not usual for the developmental level
- They have a hard time making eye contact (as discussed elsewhere), and for many neurotypicals, eye contact is important and if you do not make eye contact then you appear rude or shifty.
- Children and teens may have poor social skills.
- They are not good at picking up on non-verbal communication skills, such as social cues and body language, and this makes it hard for establishing a relationship. Those who are non-verbal may have communication systems that are limited and unfamiliar to neurotypicals.
- Many who are verbal are not good at social chit chat and are frankly not interested in it because they don’t get the point of it. Often they have difficulties starting and ending conversations, or only want to speak on topics they are passionate about.
In my next post I will discuss tips on how you can help your child learn skills that will help him / her have meaningful friendships.
For more information and autism parenting tips on teens and relationships, read my book Adolescents on the Autism Spectrum, or sign up for my course on Adolescents on the Autism Spectrum.
Most children with autism have a terrible time with change. They like things to stay the same, as they are used to the familiarity of routine. If there are no new things, they don’t have to anticipate for any ‘attacks’ to their senses; they can anticipate what is coming next. Many like things to be the same and will spend time lining up their toys or objects. Some parents have reported that when they have moved the furniture around, the child will move it back to where it used to be.
Now, imagine that you are the type of person who cannot stand change, that you are afraid of it. And then you notice something really freaky – your body is changing on you and you have no control over it. It is even worse if no one has told you what was going to happen. Boys start noticing the hair on their legs growing in tougher and longer, and hair sprouting in places there wasn’t any before. Then, they notice their Adam’s Apple has grown and become more prominent, and their voice is starting to change and is cracking at times. Not only that, but something weird is happening ‘down there’ – their penis gets hard and sometimes there is a liquid leaking out. How weird is that??!!
For girls, it is much the same – think of all the ways a girl’s body changes, and imagine how frightful that could be if you don’t like change. Especially when the girl begins to menstruate, if no one has explained to her in a way she can understand what that is all about, then she will have a difficult time going through this change towards womanhood.
- It is best to start explaining to the preteen what bodily changes to expect before puberty hits. For girls, puberty usually starts at age 9 or 10, for boys at 10 or 11. However, better late than never.
- Explain what will happen to both the male and female bodies during puberty, so that the child is not surprised when they see their peers changing as well.
- Show pictures of trusted , loved adults of both sexes – mom, dad, aunt, uncle – as babies, then children, then teens, then as adults, so that they see how the transformation has happened to everyone, and that it is a positive thing to go through.
- Explain the bodily function inherent to being a boy (hardening of the penis, ejaculation) and being a girl (menstrual cycle).If you have a girl on the spectrum, it might be a wise idea to have her wear a pad for a while before she begins her menstrual cycles, so that she gets used to the sensory aspect of wearing the sanitary pad.
- The use of social stories and a picture book you can create with the above information is helpful. You can then go over the picture book and social stories as often as needed.
The point is, body changes are scary for those who do not like change, but by telling them and showing them the changes that will happen can make it much easier for them. For more autism parenting tips when it comes to teens, you may wish to sign up for our course, Adolescents on the Autism Spectrum. Also, you can read Adolescents on the Autism Spectrum, or 41 Things to Know About Autism.
There are a few things in life that are certain: paying taxes, death and waiting. No matter who you are, part of your life will be spent waiting. Unfortunately, the “waiting” concept is not one that is picked up by osmosis for many children on the spectrum. Hopefully, they will have learned this concept by the time they are teens, but I’m still including it in this column because it is a necessary life skill everyone needs to learn – on and off the spectrum. We all have to wait in line at the grocery store, wait at the doctors office, wait for a turn on our favorite ride at Disneyland, wait at the restaurant for our food. Children also have to learn how to wait at holiday events, when traveling, at home for things they can’t have right away or to go out for a ride in the car. As children grow into teens and become more responsible for their behavior, waiting is definitely a skill they will be expected to use in the community.
Here’s one way of teaching the concept of waiting:
- Make a nice- sized (4×4 or bigger) picture icon that has a figure sitting in a chair, and the face of a clock on it. Put it somewhere convenient and noticeable, such as the refrigerator.
- Glue a piece of velcro on the big icon for putting a smaller icon of requested item on it.
- Have a timer available.
- Have small icons of the child’s favorite items that he likes to request.
- Have those items (food or toys) within his eyesight but out of his reach (but easily within yours).
- When child asks for item out of reach, show him the corresponding icon, place it on the bigger waiting icon, and say “we are waiting” and set timer for whatever his capability for waiting is at this point (10 seconds, 30 seconds, 1 minute).
- As soon as the timer rings, give him immediately the requested item. Tell him “We are finished waiting.”
- Do this many times whenever the opportunity arises and extend the amount of time until the child can wait longer and longer.
Each child is different in how long this will take or for how long he can learn to wait (and this will change as well over time). Eventually when he is asking for a ride in the car and you can’t go right away, you can tell him “Not now, in 10 more minutes your sister will be ready. We are waiting,” and he will get the idea that he may not get what he wants now, but he will get what he wants eventually. This will lessen his frustration, and subsequently, yours.