The Autism Society Philippines (ASP) is a national, non-profit organization dedicated to the well-being of persons with autism spectrum disorder. The ASP has been in the forefront of providing services and training to families living with autism.

30 July 2013

Making Friends



By: Dang U. Koe, ASP Chair Emeritus

“If only I could buy him a friend.” Many parents have expressed this sentiment, when the social inadequacies of their child with autism become apparent. If neurotypical children create bonds best when left to their own devices, children on the spectrum need to be trained in behaviors and techniques which would help them create and keep bonds of friendship. Developing social skills that address the unique deficiencies of a child with autism early in life, can serve him well until his adult years.

This week’s Angel Talker is Dr. Angelina S. Onrubia. Anj is a doctor of dermatology and mom to 10-year old Zo. She shares her personal techniques in getting her son to socialize.

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Over the years, I have watched my son struggle to make friends. Instead of joining other kids in their games, he’ll circle a big group of boys not knowing how to casually join in on the conversation. Instead, he’ll plant himself in a corner and whip out his iPad or Nintendo DS. From the corner of his eye, he’ll watch other kids gravitate towards him. The boys peer over his shoulder. Some sit right next to him. They make comments about the game. But our son remains silent. He doesn’t respond to their questions. He doesn’t acknowledge their presence. He won’t even think of asking them if they want to play the video game. Eventually, the boys drift away one by one. The golden opportunity to make friends is lost.

For typically developing children making friends comes naturally. But it is especially difficult for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). My son is on the spectrum. You wouldn’t know it just by looking at him. He has the same interests as other 10-year old boys. He walks and talks like every other boy his age. His disability is invisible and every day, he struggles to understand social situations. He struggles to understand the meaning behind certain facial expressions or the tone of someone’s voice. He struggles to make real friends.

Fortunately, there are many things we can do to help him develop the skills he lacks. Here’s a list of the things we’ve found helpful:

Enroll your child in a social skills program. Social skills classes are important to help a child modify their behavior for the classroom engagement and for community living. Personally, I have found the Social Thinking program, created by Michelle Garcia-Winner, effective. This uses cognitive behavior therapy to help persons with social deficits understand the complexities behind social interaction. It teaches them that how we think about people affects how we behave. This in turn affects how other people respond to us and how this affects our emotions. Social Thinking classes are offered in different therapy centers here in Manila such as Therabilities, Possibility Weavers and TW Community Enablers.

Enroll them in inclusive classes. Inclusive classes welcome both typically developing children and children with special needs. The children learn side-by-side. Children with special needs are given the opportunity to model their behavior after neurotypical children. In turn, the other children learn to develop compassion and empathy.

Teach them the social norms many take for granted. Neurotypical children will pick up and learn social rules and conventions by observation. Children with autism need direct instruction in these areas. Social rules and social conventions are as confusing to them as a foreign language is to us. Our kids need to be explicitly taught.

Guide them during unstructured free time. Unstructured free time is the most “dangerous’ time for kids on the spectrum. Unlike neurotypical kids, who can fend for themselves and pick up the intricacies of social communication, children on the spectrum get “lost in the translation.” Any adult with your child, be it a teacher or his grandmother, should be aware that he or she needs to guide the child during these times. This means introducing topics to talk about, steering the conversation, keeping the conversation on track, mediating arguments, etcetera.

Organize play-dates or playgroups with a small group of kids. Start small. Invite the kids of your friends or relatives, who will be more accepting of your child, over to your house for a play-date. Or arrange small playgroups for your child with your neighbors. Plan a short adult-guided activity, maybe a board game or an art activity followed by merienda. Your child needs opportunities to practice his social skills. And keeping the group small will help make the interaction a positive one.

Join bigger groups, when your child is ready. When your child is ready to join a bigger group of kids, find an activity he or she likes and enroll them in that class. Your child can join a theater class or a dance class. If it’s an activity that your child truly enjoys, it’s more likely that he or she will make friends with kids who share the same interest. Don’t forget to tell the supervising adult about your child’s diagnosis. The teacher is an invaluable ally and can keep a close eye on your child to ensure his social success in the classroom.

“Invest" in friendships. When your child finds a friend he values, go out of your way to get to know his new BFF better. Orchestrate more interaction and ensure they do not lose touch. Spring for the occasional mall gimmick. Befriend his parents as well. Closer links to another family who is compassionate to your child’s condition makes possible a longer, more enduring friendship.

Last year, my son went on a field trip. Instead of telling me about the things he saw or what he did, he chattered happily about the new friends he made. He told me about the things they did together and how much fun they had. He was happy because he had friends. And I know that’s all he’s really wanted.

This article appeared on 29 July 2013 in the print and on-line versions of Manila Bulletin's "Angels Talk" under the by-line of Dang U. Koe, ASP Chair Emeritus.

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