It can be hard to find a good friend in the best of circumstances. For the 3.5 million Americans living with autism, it can be even harder.
For those on the autism spectrum, social cues are sometimes misunderstood and new people and experiences can feel overwhelming. As parents, we want all children, no matter what their abilities, to feel valued and included. How can you help achieve this? By teaching your children about autism and showing them how to reach out to children on the spectrum in the classroom and beyond.
“It’s all about patience,” says 30 year-old Lauren Meyer, reflecting on her own experience as a child with autism. “It’s about patience on the part of the kid on the spectrum and for kids trying to make friends with them, too.” Meyer vividly recalls the unique social challenges she faced growing up. “Most other kids just didn’t get it,” she says. “They didn’t always read me right.”
Kristin Tennyson, Principal of Academics at Linden Grove, a local school with an autism focus, agrees. She says it is important to keep a simple idea in mind: Don’t judge a book by its cover. She says that a child with autism may look as if they don’t want to be involved because they are hanging back, but this is not always true.
“Very often a child with autism may struggle with how to start a social interaction, or they may be too overwhelmed by the stimuli in their environment, especially in a noisy area like the playground or the cafeteria,” says Tennyson. She says games that involve minimal language and rules, such as tossing a ball back and forth, can be a good place to start. “Consider joining that child in the area of the playground where he’s most comfortable, and let him know you’d like to play with him.”
Megan Thomas and Susie Wolfe of the Cincinnati Center for Autism recommend following these simple suggestions: 1. Gain the student’s attention. 2. Say “Hi.” 3. Wait for the student to respond; don’t walk away until you get a response. 4. Repeat on a daily basis at the same time so the student will come to expect the interaction. Thomas and Wolfe stress that it is important to remember that “our friends with autism want to interact with peers. They just aren’t always sure how to interact.”
People first language
When it comes to autism and other labels, “person first language” is important. The Autism Society of Greater Cincinnati encourages people to refer to a child as having autism versus being an autistic child. This is considered a more respectful and accurate, since autism is only one aspect of a child’s whole being.
The word “spectrum” is used to describe autism because how it manifests in different people can vary greatly.
Social situations away from the school setting can be even more difficult to navigate for kids on the spectrum. Local parent Joey Spencer says a simple call for a play date can be huge for a child with autism. “These kids want to play and have friends just like everyone else,” she says. “They just need help to make it happen.”
Spencer also suggests reaching out to children exhibiting “stimming” behaviors. “My son will happily explain why he is pacing, flapping his hands and talking to himself,” she says. Stimming behaviors are sometimes exhibited by “sensory seeking” children on the spectrum. Other children with autism are “sensory avoiding,” and can quickly overload with too much input.
Northern Kentucky mother Jeanette Tacon offers this firsthand advice for approaching kids who are sensory avoiding: “Think of ways these folks may be affected. Loud, sudden noises at a party or event may be enough to make the child anxious enough that they can’t stay, because they don’t want to have another noise surprise them,” she says. “And once it has happened once, it’s all over.”
Meyer says that while maintaining a routine can be important for people on the spectrum, they do want to enjoy new friends and experiences. “It’s helpful to us when we have plenty of advance notice,” she explains. “Parents can encourage their kids to think ahead when it comes to including a child on the spectrum – try to ask way ahead of time for a play date.”
To that end, Tacon suggests sending the child pictures or websites for new places in advance so they know what to expect. “Let them become as familiar as possible with new surroundings before you get there,” she recommends.
Cincinnati is home to several high-quality organizations focused on autism outreach. Contact Christina Hickey, Clinical Director of the Autism Learning Center at YMCA of Greater Cincinnati for more information about the center’s Autism Learning Programs (513) 923-4466), some of which include an inclusive component, bringing together “typical” peers with children on the spectrum.
Cincinnati also has its own chapter of the Autism Society of America (http://www.autismcincy.org/). The Cincinnati Center for Autism (http://www.cincinnaticenterforautism.org/) is another comprehensive resource for local families. Both organizations are dedicated to educating the community about autism and can provide education for parents, caregivers and community members.