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Making friends on the playground or at school can be a daunting task for any child, and especially for a child with special needs. Children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) often have difficulty initiating social interaction with their peers and may be unable to recognize social cues such as body language, tone, and emotion. Although these children may face many challenges when making new acquaintances and friends, parents should be supportive and encourage their child to explore the playground.
Susan Cortilet, LMHC, who counsels individuals with ASD and other related conditions through her Nanuet-based practice Discovering Your World, has more than 20 years of experience as a mental health professional. Here, Cortilet shares her advice on how parents can encourage children with ASD and other special needs to engage in social interactions and establish healthy friendships.
"Plugging children into social situations is a critical part of everyday activity," Cortilet says. "[Organizing] play dates, going to the playground, pairing children up with a friend, and inviting children to your home -- it is the same formula as with other [typical] children." The worst-case scenario is for parents to ignore this crucial developmental period in their child's life, which could lead the child to become socially isolated as he or she gets older.
Parents should observe their child's interactions with peers and assess whether they are healthy. Cortilet defines a healthy friendship as being "respectful, caring, and cooperative"; negative friendships that are demeaning, unequal, or unkind should be addressed. Look for these qualities when your child is interacting with others. Also, ask for honest feedback from your child's teacher and school officials on your child's daily activities and experiences, especially in regard to behavioral changes such as social withdrawal.
Many schools are creating innovative programs that address bullying and teasing, especially with respect to children with special needs, Cortilet says. Be proactive and request that your child's school be forward-thinking. Peer mentor programs help children with special needs develop self-esteem and self-confidence, creating a support system that helps them find the courage to initiate social interaction with their peers.
Children fear the unknown, and they often shy away from playing with kids who are different from them. Promoting tolerance and acceptance of children with and without special needs will help foster a mutual understanding between the two, Cortilet says. She stresses the importance of starting this education early. "We have to educate young children on 'differences' and work hard on defeating stereotypes, stopping the usage of language that demeans others, like the 'R' word, or making fun of others," says Cortilet. "Parents of typical children can educate their children on talking about their own feelings and confusion when they see behaviors that are not typical. Educating all children in social competencies, such as problem-solving, decision-making, and developing caring relationships with different kinds of children is critical."
In a recent conference featuring Temple Grandin, a best-selling author and a highly influential autistic adult, Cortiles says Grandin recommended parents to limit their child's use of social media because it inhibits his ability to develop communication skills and may even make a child more reclusive. "Children with ASD are drawn to social media as a special interest, for social withdrawal, and for various other reasons," Cortilet explains. Children with special needs, in general, often use social media as a way to avoid direct contact. It is important to take your child outside, away from the computer or phone, and allow him or her to have face-to-face interactions with peers.
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