Helping your child make friends in a brand new town during a pandemic would be difficult for any parent. But parents of children on the autism spectrum are likely to find it even more challenging. The masks and social distancing still required of us and our kids, combined with a lack of structured activities to make friends and the child’s own struggle to master certain social skills: It is a lot to overcome.
One such parent wrote to Parental Advisory recently asking for help with this exact situation. Here’s her question:
I am a single mother of an eight-year-old boy with autism. While he is extremely high on the spectrum, we still struggle to find other children his age, in particular, to have playdates with.
When we visit the local parks other children aren’t old enough to grasp the special needs and attention Ethan requires. It also goes without saying that Ethan lacks the complete understanding of his own special needs. For example, when he approaches others and wants to play with them, he doesn’t understand why they don’t immediately respond the way he wants and gets frustrated. As I mentioned, Ethan is extremely high on the spectrum and by simply watching him, no one would ever know he was a little different. This makes it harder, ironically.
Anyway, as a result of a recent move, we cannot call on our regular play dates, family, and friends. I’d appreciate any feedback and/or advice you could offer.
Being eight years old and the new kid in town can be hard under any circumstances, but especially in Ethan’s case. I can understand his frustration as he tries to adjust to a new area and make new friends, especially when certain services or potential activities may be limited right now. To find you both some solutions, I reached out to clinical psychologist Dr. Cynthia Martin at the Child Mind Institute’s Autism Centre for her input.
Look for a social skills group
As you know, making and building connections with other kids and parents is going to be key for you and Ethan. Normally, that would begin to happen organically as he goes to school and you work with the district’s special education coordinator or the chairperson of his individualized education program (IEP). That may be more challenging right now, though, if he’s still learning partially or entirely from home. So Martin suggests you begin searching for a local social skills group for him to join.
A community-based social skills group helps kids on the spectrum (and not on the spectrum) to meet other kids who also need to develop and build skills that help them develop social relationships. That includes working on things like flexibility in interactions, understanding the reciprocity needed with others (and that things won’t always go the way you want them to go), and managing the unpredictability of how a peer might behave.
“There’s a lot of unpredictability in social relationships and that’s the aspect that’s hard for kids who have autism; even if it’s very mild and they’re high-functioning, that kind of unpredictability of the peer can be difficult for kids who are on the spectrum,” Martin says. “So finding an in-person social skills group within the community is a great way to meet other kids and other families who might just really mesh well with that particular child.”
There are a few places to look to find these groups. You might start by researching local university-based academic medical centres and children’s hospitals. Those centres, Martin says, will likely have a neurodevelopmental, autism, ADHD, or behaviour disorders clinic that runs social skills groups as part of their program (or are affiliated with such a program). These programs, which typically meet weekly, also have a parent component that can help you learn to better support your child’s social interactions.
You can also look for a local autism resource centre or other community groups that provide recreation-based social groups for kids with autism. In addition, there may be local private providers that organise ongoing social groups, and the school itself may run a group like this.
Help them develop their interests
Another great way to help Ethan develop some friendships is by involving him in a structured group or activity he’s already interested in, whether that’s Minecraft, graphic novels, LEGO-building, or baseball. Having a built-in common interest creates a framework that a friendship can be built upon. You might find these groups through the school or your local library — and if the groups are mixed-age, Martin says, that’s all the better. Many kids on the spectrum are socially motivated but they struggle with needing flexibility and recognising certain subtleties in the interactions with their peers.
“Sometimes matching them with kids who are a little bit older or a little bit younger ends up making the interaction more successful because younger kids are more likely to follow along with an older child’s ideas,” Martin says. “And older children might be more understanding of a child’s differences.”
For example, if a 12-year-old is playing with an eight-year-old who says or does something that seems to be socially naive or immature, the older child is more likely to attribute those behaviours to the younger child’s age, rather than an underlying neurodevelopmental difference.
Again, those opportunities may be limited right now, so it’ll be important to get creative and try to find similar opportunities online. In particular, look for local groups that are connecting virtually over a common interest so that when things do open up more, you’ve already built a connection that can develop even further in person.
Join local Facebook groups
It may seem a bit cliché to recommend a Facebook group, as there is a Facebook group for practically everything, but this could be a vital step toward connecting with local parents who have kids with special needs and in finding helpful resources like social skills groups.
“Those are great resources to know what is available in your community because some of these things — especially more locally run social groups — might not really be advertised,” Martin says.
Within the group, you can try using the search function to find what you’re looking for, or pose your specific question to the group. The word-of-mouth referrals in these types of circumstances are invaluable.
You can also visit the Child Mind Institute’s guide to autism spectrum disorder for more articles, advice, and information for parents of children with autism.
Have a parenting dilemma you’re grappling with? Email your questions to [email protected] with “Parental Advisory” in the subject line.