By Dr. Steven Richfield
Parents of children with autism often confront the daunting task of determining how much to expose their child to the everyday behaviors and activities of non-autistic peers. Part of the problem entails wondering how peers will respond and whether the outcome will be beneficial or harmful to their child’s growth.
While many autistic children want to do what their peers are doing at any given time, their approach to becoming included is often fraught with confusion and lack of knowledge about social customs. If this situation is familiar, read on for coaching tips to help the autistic child find greater peer acceptance:
Use and reinforce the mantra: “Find the friendly path.” This expression refers to the various factors that combine during encounters with others that make for the flow of friendly feelings back and forth. When explaining to the child, use pictures, video clips, and role playing to highlight facial expression, eye contact, tone of voice, questions of interest, and sustained listening. These five factors are emphasized as “the way we start and stay upon the friendly path,” and watch if the other person “is interested in joining us on the path.” Use the same factors to depict which message the other person is sending about their interest in continuing the play or discussion.
Be mindful of the beginnings and endings that are so critical to social interaction. Since autism pulls a child into what appears as a self-centered world, it is habit for them to initially relate to others based upon requests rather than friendly greetings. Parents can shape the alternate habit of giving a friendly greeting at the beginning of the encounter, just as it’s appropriate to say something nice when entering someone’s home. Similarly, when leaving an encounter, the child can be coached in ways to express kind appreciation for being included and positive feelings about the next encounter. Upon approaching someone, the parent can provide a gentle reminder, “remember entrances and exits,” to cue the child to this importance.
Recognize that certain social customs will not follow literally from what the child has been taught to expect in the past. For example, the reminder to “use your words” may now come with the expectation that doing so will lead peers to grant their requests. Some habits, such as unusual sounds or movements, have been verbally monitored by parents and teachers to remind the child to refrain from them. Instead of making this request, peers will distance themselves from the autistic child due to their own discomfort with the habits. Parents can make their autistic child aware of how important it is for them to try their hardest “habit control” when in the company of peers and, if necessary, offer inconspicuous substitute habits.
Consider a child-friendly explanation to peers that helps demystify autism. Potential playmates can greatly benefit from understanding that certain autistic behaviors, though unusual, are ways that children calm themselves and/or explore their surroundings. Provide peers with clear and direct language that they can use to communicate friendly interest to the autistic child. Peers’ success with opening up channels of play and communication will greatly relieve their anxiety or discomfort.
Dr. Steven Richfield is a clinical psychologist in Plymouth Meeting, PA. He has developed a child-friendly, self-control/social skills-building program called Parent Coaching Cards and is coauthor of The Parent Coach book. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 610-238-4450. To learn more, visit www.parentcoachcards.com.