In a recent survey I conducted to find out what areas parents with children on the autism spectrum (or professionals who work with children with autism) want help with most, helping their child make and maintain friendship came out on top.

Seeing your child have and be a friend (or be a part of a social group) is something all parents want for their children.  I have talked to many parents who have shared the excitement when witnessing their child make their first friend, or the challenge of seeing your child on his /her own and I know how this topic can tug on your heart strings (and mine :).

However, before I discuss the nuts and bolts of HOW to make friends, I first have an important question to ask you; does your child want to make a friend?

Seems like a strange question (who doesn’t want to have friend?)…but please read on.

Many parents, understandably so, assume that their child wants friends and that their child feels sad and lonely on their own.

The truth is- thought this might be the case for some kids (and I have worked with children who have clearly and directly communicated their feelings about this) others are actually quite fine on their own, in the safe and predictable world they have created for themselves. They don’t really want a friend.

What do you do with that?

Keep reading…

It is essential to identify whether your child is truly interested in having a friend- because as you have probably seen, unless he wants it for himself, he will not do what it takes to make it happen.  Ultimately, a goal as deep and complex as friendship (though this is true for all goals) has to be driven by his/her own desire.

So, the first thing you want to identify is: Does my child want to have a friend?

You can answer this question by looking for these signs:

-Has my child communicated this to me (either directly or indirectly?)

-Does my child attempt to engage with other kids (going up to them, trying to join in play/activity or conversation)?

-Does my child observe with interest as other kids play (at the playground, at school or other environments)?

If your answer to any one of these questions is “YES!” then your child likely has the desire, but possibly has not yet developed the skills to cultivate interaction with his/her peers.

(How can you help your child learn these skills? Stay tuned for next week’s blog- I got a lot to share on this one).

If your answer to this question is “No…. not really, I guess I want it for him more than he wants it for himself” than it is time to first develop ‘friendship readiness’- an overall desire to make a friend.

Here are some skills you can work on to inspire ‘friendship readiness’ in your child:

1. Focus on your child interacting with the people that are most familiar to him, YOU! Your child interacting with you in fun and playful ways is the foundation for him/her to transfer that desire and ability with kids his age that he is less familiar with. This is what I call a ‘stepping stone skill’- a smaller skill that your child needs to achieve in order to reach a broader goal, like friendship. Create focused playtime, ideally each and every day (even 20 minutes at a time), where you are playing with your child in the activities s/he loves most.  Remember, this is not time devoted to acquiring a specific skill, this is about your child experiencing joy and delight in social interaction. This is a very important seed you are planting- one that is critical in growing your child’s desire for friendship.

2.Develop an awareness of peers. Another ‘stepping stone skill’. Before we even begin the entry into the world of peers, it is important to notice them to begin with!  You can do this by taking your child to the park (on a day/time where it is more quiet so s/he is more likely to engage with you versus get overwhelmed by all the commotion and end up ‘stimmimg’ or having a meltdown) and simply point out how the children are playing together, (“Look, see that boy is running and that girl is chasing him”). Describe it in ways that may be interesting for your child, like “Ooooo, look at that she is fast!  I think she is gonna catch him- there she goes!”, or if your child is older “See how those kids are having a picnic together and how she is sharing her strawberries with her friend”.  Doing this takes all the pressure off  your child to participate and just gives him/her a chance to observe while you point out the fun and benefit of playing with and being with a friend (again, building the desire).

Once your child begins to cultivate these ‘friendship readiness’ skills over time (or if s/he already has them) then you can implement the strategies I will share with you next week on how to cultivate friendship.

But remember, unless your child want this for himself,  ‘learned’ skills will only take him so far.  That’s why making sure your child has ‘friendship readiness’ is key.  Once the spark is there- the skills needed come much more easily and naturally and having a friend will be meaningful for your child.

I would love to hear from you- what are you taking away from this article?  Where does your child fall on the ‘friendship readiness’ spectrum? Join the conversation by leaving your comments/questions below!