Trouble with socialization, or social discomfort, is one of the most common symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder. Often, children with ASD who are having trouble making friends have the same desire to make friends that any other young child does. The parents and adults in the lives of young children with ASD have the opportunity to help children bridge that gap in social skills, and generally, the more practice young children with ASD get socially, the more skills they master, and the more fun they can start to have.
There are a range of different ways of encouraging social development in young children, and not every child will respond to every strategy. Figuring out what works for your child will help you be the best possible support for her early social adventures.
- Figure out where the problem is: Some children don’t know how to reach out to start to make friends, and may need help practicing breaking the ice. Others might not have the instinct for knowing how to play “with” other children yet – which parents and other caregivers can help them work on by playing back-and-forth or turn-taking games with them at home first. Other children can also be difficult to connect with for children who are already having trouble socially because other young children are also still learning social interaction, and won’t know how to make those social interactions easier – so figuring out times when older children who might be willing to be a little more patient might be around to interact can be helpful.
- Set up success: For many young children with ASD, routine is an important part of feeling comfortable and happy. Socializing that interferes with routine may start off on the wrong foot before it even begins. A good way to offer your little one lots of chances to develop her social skills is to try to build some social time into your family’s routine, whether that means going to the park, signing up for a class, or using video chat to connect with members of your extended family at a special time of day.
- Offer structured play: For many children with ASD, free play and unstructured interaction are much harder to navigate socially than games, classes, or other structured interactions. Offering a structure for socialization to happen within can help children with ASD begin to socialize.
- Know when to step in: Keep an eye on new social interactions, especially now when your child is so young. By keeping an eye out, you can step in to talk through misunderstandings you might see come up, and if you see something happen that often triggers a meltdown for your child, you can head it off at the pass. If your child communicates in a way that other children may not recognize, it’s also okay to point out the ways she may be trying to connect. This is especially true for relatives or family friends who your child will see often. If Baby is going to be seeing your old roommate’s seven-year-old at every barbecue for the rest of the summer, teaching that seven-year-old what some of your child’s main ways of communicating non-verbally are can help them start to understand each other better.
- Set the script: Knowing what to expect can help children with ASD feel confident in new social situations. You can talk to her about the people she is likely to meet, what they might say to her, and what she might say back. Practicing a few different scripts with her can help her know how to respond, which can cut down on anxiety in new or overwhelming situations.
- Offer the chance for socializing with other children with ASD: Having the chance to interact with other children who have some of the same characteristics as them can be a great way for young children with ASD to make friends, and to find points of connection that might not come up if you don’t make a point to reach out. You can connect with the parents of other children with ASD through parent groups or advocacy groups in person or online.
- Offer an escape route: If your child finds social situations to be overwhelming, make sure she knows she has somewhere to retreat to. Social situations – even social situations as familiar as the playground near your home – can feel very intense to children with ASD. Making sure your child knows that she can come sit quietly near you, or can ask you to take her home if she needs to, may help her feel more comfortable connecting with others. Taking five minutes to walk around the block with your child, or sit with her in the car, can help lessen the intensity of social discomfort.
- Let her bring help:
- If your child feels most comfortable with something to fidget with, or if she has a special comfort object, by all means, encourage her to bring those things that make her feel comfortable with her. Young children connect with others best socially when they feel the most comfortable and confident, and letting them use the coping mechanisms they’ve developed for themselves is a great way to encourage their growing confidence.
For the parents of some young children with autism, socializing can feel like one of the biggest obstacles in their children’s development, but sometimes one of the hardest things about it is letting go of ideas about what social development “should” look like. Social development in young children with ASD is the strongest, and the most positive for everyone involved, if what parents pay attention to is the specific way their child interacts with and is interested in the world. If you’re keeping your child’s specific, individual needs and desires in mind, you’ll have a better chance of figuring out how to connect every time.