Nearly 1 in 59 children have an autism spectrum disorder, meaning there is a good chance that you and your family will meet a child with autism at school or on the playground. While some of the major misconceptions are that people with autism might lack empathy, aren’t affectionate or don’t want friends, this isn’t so. The words “Will you be my friend?” might not come out of their mouths, but people with autism have the same desires of connection and friendship as a neurotypical person. If you are curious about how to be a better friend to a child with autism, here are five tips to get you started.
Adjust Your Expectations
Children with autism or another sensory processing disorder have alternative ways of communicating that could be perceived as shy or unfriendly. They might avoid making eye contact, engaging in make-believe play or even speaking, and depending on how their autism presents itself, they could display behaviors like rocking, pacing or hand-flapping.
“It’s important to remember that just because a child does not use spoken language, it does not mean they are not communicating, nor does it mean that they do not understand,” says Mary Helen Richer, CEO for the Autism Society of Greater Cincinnati. “It’s an easy assumption to make, but in many cases, they are internalizing or taking in their environment and they may well understand what is going on around them.”
Often, a child’s behavior can be their way of communicating. Talk to their parents about how you can best engage with them, and be prepared to adjust your “listening” technique so you can better “hear” what the child is trying to tell you.
You might have to adjust the way you communicate, as well. Speak more slowly, pause between sentences, be more direct and avoid idioms in order to allow the child to better process what you’re saying. There are also a number of different apps and websites available with “visual boards” to help you better communicate with children who don’t communicate verbally.
Sometimes a child with autism might seem rude, forthright or blunt, when in reality, they might not understand socially appropriate ways to express the things they are feeling. This can be a tricky area to navigate with your own children. Be direct about why a child with autism might say or do something that you wouldn’t typically condone, and model kindness. Don’t stare, call out or do something else that might embarrass your friend.
Don’t be afraid to engage with a child with autism — a sincere desire to be friends is generally well-received. “Show interest in their interests and encourage interaction through this interest,” Richer says.
You can start this discussion by talking to their parents, but if possible, address the child directly and avoid talking about them as if they aren’t in the room. Be curious about their area of interest, even if it’s not something you know much about. Sometimes differences can be intimidating, so engage your own children by noting that while their friend might not like bright lights or loud noises, we are very much the same in wanting to share our passions with friends.
Showing kindness and dignity can be as simple as shifting the lens through which you view your friend and your relationship with them. Instead of focusing on their differences or challenges, show appreciation for their strengths and unique abilities. By focusing on these things, you can build self-esteem, confidence and self-worth.
“I know a young man on the autism spectrum who reminds me regularly that he doesn’t have a disability, nor does he have a disorder — he has unique features that make him who he is,” Richer says. “I just love this! We all have unique features that make us who we are. We need to embrace them.”
Put Fear Aside
Don’t let the fear of saying or doing the wrong thing get in the way of befriending a child with autism or another sensory processing disorder. Simple acts of kindness, such as a warm smile or friendly “hello” can go a long way in making them feel accepted and included.
“We all make mistakes, and you shouldn’t fear a child who has a sensory processing disorder or autism,” Richer says. “They want to be your friend and be treated the same as everyone else. They have so much to give.”
To learn more about how to connect with children with autism, check out resources available through organizations like the Autism Society (www.autism-society.org) and Autism Speaks (www.autismspeaks.org).