For people on the autism spectrum, forming social relationships outside of their immediate family presents a challenge. It’s not their lack of wanting to be social that is the main obstacle, but their impaired ability to read subtle social cues and respond in socially expected ways. Social skills are incredibly complicated and hard to learn, and, unfortunately, people diagnosed with autism have to learn them actively, unlike their peers who pick up social skills intuitively.
Children on the autism spectrum should start learning social skills early on. It’s possible to help mentor a person with autism to make friends and prevent withdrawal or antisocial behavior later in life. Parents and direct support providers play a prominent role in helping people diagnosed with autism develop their social skills through accommodation and assimilation.
Accommodation works by changing the physical or social environment of the child with the goal of encouraging positive social interactions. If there are children at school your child seems to connect with, an example of accommodation would be to invite that child to your home for a playdate. The idea is that your child will be more relaxed at home, which will alleviate some of the anxiety of social interaction.
However, the change of environment doesn’t have to happen only at home. In the school environment, you can work along with the teacher to raise awareness of Autism Spectrum Disorders, which will help children and their parents learn how to interact with your child positively. You can enroll your child in activities they’re interested in which also encourage them to interact socially and meet other like-minded children. Another example of accommodation is working with peer mentors, which are children selected to help children diagnosed with autism to learn how to communicate with peers. With guidance from the teachers and parents, peer mentors can be of great help in teaching social skills in a natural environment.
Assimilation, on the other hand, is the active development of a child’s social skills. Where accommodation focuses on the environment, assimilation focuses on the child. It provides your child with skills they need to communicate effectively by teaching facial expressions, body language, and social expectations.
Depending on the child’s interests, you can choose some of the common ways to teach social skills. For example, facial expressions and body language could be learned through picture cards, or through video recordings which you can pause and rewind. If the child has difficulty asking questions, you could provide the child with a list of appropriate items for a new acquaintance and teach them through an interview-type game. Role-playing can be a great way to walk a child through typical social scenarios they might encounter and provide them with knowledge on how to deal with those situations.
Making friends might not come naturally to people on the autism spectrum, but they can still learn social skills well enough to do it. And the direct support provider needs to keep a positive attitude and adjust to the child’s needs and interests.
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