In those early days right after diagnosis, my predominant worry was what if the Bear never made any friends.
What if she spent her days alone.
I spent the next five years matchmaking.
I organised play dates which went wrong (sometimes disastrously so), moved to an estate with lots of children (which lasted less than a year before we resumed countryside living), and signed her up for every extra curricular club going.
And then I stood back. She was anxious. I was anxious. What I was doing clearly wasn’t working.
It did however teach me a valuable lesson, and one that I’ve carried over into my professional life as well.
I realised that I can give my daughter and my students friendship skills. I can teach them the strategies they need to be successful in relationships, but I cannot control their friendships.
They have to be allowed to do that themselves.
So what are my top tips?
Teach the basics.
It’s important to remember that even the most academically able child or young person is likely to struggle with the social nuances of friendships. Add to that the anxiety of doing something you know you struggle with and a hatred of making mistakes and it’s easy to see why youngsters on the Spectrum find friendships challenging.
I believe in teaching and practicing the basics, from how to ask someone to play, to how to change the game to something children are happier playing in role play format, to how to put things right after an argument.
At school each class has a social skills lesson once a week and we practice how to do this, with members of staff playing one of the roles and a student playing the other.
I think as staff we enjoy the sessions at least as much as the students… especially when we get to do something we shouldn’t. And our students love correcting us when we get it wrong and teaching us how to get it right.
Each week we practice new scenarios in new situations, our students learn new scripts at a time when their emotions aren’t charged and feel more empowered when they are in real life situations.
Allow for down time.
When it comes to free time though, I don’t insist that my students (or daughter for that matter) are social. The school day is hard for many of our students. They spend it engaging in activities they don’t want to do, listening to staff they don’t want to listen to and working with other students they don’t want to work with.
I believe in giving opportunities to access social activities (we usually have an outdoor game of some kind, indoor board games and staff willing to sit and chat. But I don’t believe in making it compulsory. If a student wants to sit and read a book, go on a computer or just to spend some time alone, that is ok too. Spending free time alone doing their own thing, can recharge a student’s batteries ready for the day ahead.
I do not believe in imposing friendships.
Match students based on special interests.
There is nothing that excites me more than the referral paperwork for a new student that has the same interest as one of my existing students. I know that my students have a better chance of developing a connection with each other if they have a strong shared interest.
I’ve long since realised that actual matchmaking doesn’t work. But if I construct activities based on the join interest, I know that the students will naturally gravitate together.
Employ a buddy system.
Buddy systems can be incredibly effective but need to be set up carefully so that they do not become overwhelming either for the buddy or for the child learning friendship skills. Where possible using the oldest children in the school as Buddies works well. Not only do they have more understanding but their role is more defined than a Buddy who is in the same class – as they are not present the whole time. This prevents feelings of guilt and anxiety on both sides about spending time with other students. The purpose of a buddy system should be to give students practice to delop their friendship skills and confidence in those skills so that they can eventually be transferred to their own peer group.
Intervene when necessary.
All too often support is left in place for lesson time, then withdrawn during in free time. Whereas in actual fact for most children on the spectrum, free time is the time they need that support the most. Where possible, adjust the role of support staff so they can be around to facilitate during these times. By monitoring friendships from a slight distance, it’s easy to pull a child quickly aside to advise them on how to solve an issue before it becomes a problem. Ensuring that friendships are maintained for longer, students feel successful in their relationships and that they learn the skills needed for the future.
In summary the real key, is to give students the skills they need to develop friendships. But to remember that ultimately the choice of whether to play alone or together is theirs.
If you do want to learn more you might find our autism section a useful place to start. It’s full of different strategies to try out.
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