Saturday, May 10, 2014

How to help your Child with Asperger's Syndrome to Make Friends

"Who did you play with at school today?" Mother asks to which the the answer is a mumbled, "Nobody..." It's one of the most common problems faced by children with Asperger's syndrome and their parents.

Making friends is not easy - keeping friends is even harder. Back in November, I blogged about my own experience growing up and making friends but this time I want to offer some tips and advice for parents of children who are struggling with the whole friendship thing.

Getting Help Recognizing Friends
The idea of friend-making relies on a number of steps which are not necessarily instinctive in children with Asperger's syndrome. The first step of friendship is recognition, a step which contains two parts; facial recognition and name recognition.

Usually the former comes naturally although some children have "face blindness" and some have recognition difficulties when others change their hairstyle or other aspects of appearance. There were times when I was growing up that I didn't realize that someone I was friends with a year prior was the same person who had just walked up and talked to me.

Sometimes, my mother had to intervene and say "hey, do you remember Aaron, you played soccer with him all last year..." Sometimes I'd reply that "no, that was a different Aaron" but it would get me thinking and often her prompts would enable me to get on with re-making friends.  

Name recognition is much more difficult and it's not uncommon for some children to go months without learning their teacher's name, let alone the names of their classmates.  One particular problem that I had was that I was always so cautious of getting names wrong that I wouldn't take a risk.  I might have had a fairly good idea of the teacher's name but I'd never say it out loud in case I got it wrong.

That was something that it took my mother a while to grasp but eventually she started saying and writing my teacher's names for me until I felt comfortable with them.

Why Names are Important
One of the most awkward things that can happen is to be caught out not knowing someone's name. My youngest used to play with a boy every single day at preschool. They were great friends and apparently this boy used to talk about my son by name every single day at home. One day, when my wife was picking him up, she asked what this particular boy's name was and our son replied, "I don't know!"  This drew a very emotional response from his mother who was standing nearby.

Apparently all they heard at home was our son's name and yet our son didn't even know their son's name. It didn't occur to this mother that our son didn't need to know a name to have a great friendship.

Learning Names
One good exercise is to use the class photos to help your child learn names. In fact, it's worthwhile keeping a copy of those photos near the place where you and your child do homework and discuss school; or perhaps near the dinner table. A good aim is to learn one or two names per night. Do this randomly, rather than starting at the beginning and working through to the end. This ensures that your child is associating names to faces rather than learning a list by rote. For best results, start by asking your child to pick out the kids who he plays with - or who are in his class. You might also want to ask him to point out bullies and mean kids in the photo, or kids with similar interests.

Learning names and putting names to faces is one of the most important parts of making friends.

Finding Similar Interests
One of the best ways to help your child with Aspergers find friends is to locate friends with similar interests.  To make this process easier, give your child themed objects that support his or her interests. For exampele, if they like football, or a particular football team, then try to send them to school with "branded" objects like pencil cases, book coverings and if uniforms are not a requirement at your school, themed outfits.  Take care to ensure that the branding is age-appropriate.  Sending a 14 year old to school with Sponge-bob themed materials might attract unwanted attention from bullies.

When your child comes home, ask them who commented on their themed materials and look for positive and/or repeated comments over the course of days. Your child might not necessarily find their friends without a little help from you, so be prepared to pull a few strings or suggest that your child speaks to a particular child who seems to share his interests.

Organizing Play dates
If a shared interest becomes apparent, consider organizing a play date. If your child isn't able to pass messages successfully, you might want to contact his teachers for assistance. They won't be able to give you another child's phone number but they should be able to pass yours on, should you authorize it.

When organizing play dates, make sure that you only have one child visitor. Inviting two friends at once carries the risk that the two visitors will play together and exclude your child. If you have two children, then it's best to get them to invite one friend each so that one of your children doesn't "steal" the friend intended for the other.

If you're having a play date away from home, try to pick places which don't have other children - or at least don't have a high likelihood of having a mutual friend attend.  Parks for example, are full of other kids and could result in your play date being "hijacked" by other friends who just happen to be playing nearby.

Be sure to invite the other child's parents to stay during the play date.  Some parents like to drop and run but others feel the need to keep a watchful eye on their child in new situations. This is especially the case when it comes to mixed gender play dates.  These might seem unusual but if you have a boy with no friends who relates better to girls, then it's better for him to have a play date with a girl than with nobody.

After the play date, watch for signs that your child is playing with his new friend - or if not, ask your child why not. Your child might need a little advice on how to keep the friendship going.

Try not to get too caught up in reciprocal arrangements. Some parents don't handle children well and don't reciprocate on play dates. Sometimes they invite your child over immediately -- and sometimes they don't invite your child over at all.

This in itself isn't a problem unless your child reports on more than one occasion that another child was invited or that a birthday party was held with several classmates attending, and he wasn't invited.

If that happens, it's often better all round if you look for other friends rather than "flogging a dead horse".

Sometimes these things work out and sometimes they don't.  

Next time, I'll look at ways to help your child to keep their friends.


Hannah Capps said...

It's funny I'm 30 years of age and still often times feel as though I need 'play dates' only in the form of 'hey would you like to get a coffee or tea' I'm not afraid to ask I just forget the person's name and yea it is important *face palm* I am always forgetting to write down the names of the folks and or just am living life and well yea forget I will recall the first letter of the name (huge improvement for me :-P) But, I do try very hard to take the time to remember people's names it just take's six months to a year without helpers as in note cards and or a very stressful situation to be going on even then two months to remember the names...It's ok though I accept it as apart of who I am, and how God made me and folks in my faith based community are very forgiving of social fo pa's as it were :-) your blog is great, keep it up!

Ambivalent Anthony said...

Thank you for this post!

I'm AS and lived my childhood in suburban/rural surroundings. It was late 80s and early 90s so we didn't have that much videogames and such to keep us inside (though we did have a computer and I did read a lot) so we played outside most of the time, summer or winter.

I've been pondering over why I didn't have such great difficulties finding the motivation (not just the skills) for 'making friends' when I was young, and I did have a lot of them. I think one of the reasons was that I did enjoy playing in large groups when there was a specific game we were playing. I don't even know the English names for those games, but mostly they were variations of hide-and-seek, sometimes in teams, sometimes with flashlights in the dark etc. I was fascinated with the games, and the other kids were often there just as 'non-player characters', like the computer-controlled characters in computer games. I did communicate with them and so on, but the point of the event was the game, not the chit-chat.

A thing about those games was also that they required no equipement, so if we got bored or if there was conflict we just changed the activity (which is difficult if a child decides to play football in a team, for example, even if the child is enthusiastic about it - the requirements for a succesful event are much greater).

Looking at the kids in my town nowadays, I'd imagine being an aspie among them would be quite difficult. It seems that when they socialise it's more about "hanging out" than doing something, or if it's doing something it's either indoors alone or as teams doing something that requires quite a lot of commitment.

Stephen said...

Gavin, thanks for the great blog post. What are some solutions you propose for helping people with AS who have face blindness overcome that hurdle?

Also, I can recommend Jed E. Baker's Social Skills Training curriculum as affordable and easy to follow. I use this curriculum to help young people with AS with these types of skills.

Anonymous said...

"...If that happens, it's often better all round if you look for other friends rather than "flogging a dead horse".

"Sometimes these things work out and sometimes they don't. "

This advice is a million times better than encouraging one's son or daughter to keep pursuing the ex-friend and saying "but it's not stalking because [he or she] has Asperger's so it doesn't count!"

Another blogger I've seen continues to defend her adult son pursuing a coworker who didn't want to be his friend anymore, even after his target and his acquaintances at work and their supervisor and a restraining order told him to back off. The blogger says that her son was different so none of the instructions to back off count.

Mel Ingram said...

Hmm, on the autism spectrum here. I don't have a particular difficulty with names/faces, though it's no walk in the park either, and I had no help at all making friends as a child (so no, I did not make friends). Socializing was this weird, foreign thing for me, especially since I was fixed in a lot of rigid beliefs and patterns, so the biggest obstacle I faced was understanding WHY I should go through the pain and occassional humiliation of reaching out to the kids around me, and engaging in conversations that were supposed to jump from this to that to that when it SO often resulted in hurt feelings and failure. It just wasn't fun, doing something so unstructured and with veeeery undefined rules and goals.
I would add to this list something else - ask your child if they understand why they should try to make friends. Explain to them all the different things that can come out of interacting with other people. Don't take it for granted that your child understands that 'trying to make friends is good' or you risk isolating them even more. And embrace the fact that, you know what, some people on the autism spectrum just don't WANT to have friends. I know I didn't. It was a pointless, painful process that led nowhere. Even now, give me just one or two solid friends I can rely on to meet up with once a week or so and I'm happy. But what I learned much later in life, when I met 4 people who formed my first real friend group ever while studying abroad in college, was how much FUN having friends could be! SO many activities I enjoy are harder when all alone, even though I like being alone (ie, going to restaurants alone invites lots of stares and feels uncomfortable, even when I'm totally happy doing it alone). But anyways, it was only after I luckily stumbled my way into that friend group via the sheer desperation for friends that a lot of students feel the first week of study abroad, that I understood how much I was missing out on. So, tell your child all the great things that come from having friends. Help them find the inspiration and motivation they need to try something that they are going to fail, fail, fail at A LOT, without ever understanding why. If possible, it would be really cool if parents of an Aspie could get some honest feedback from a child/parent after a playdate about what the Aspie child did right/wrong for making the other child want to be their friend. In my case, most people just thought I hated them since I never seemed very interested in them or gave them compliments.

AspergersTestsite said...

Social skills are one of the elements of Aspergers that can bring us down the most. Thanks for this extensive post and the practical tips

Ralph Doncaster said...

I'd start by asking does your child have a problem making friends, or are you projecting that onto them? As an adolescent, I spent thousands of hours happily immersed in my special interests. NT's don't understand that Aspies can be happy without a lot of friends and social interaction.

Gavin Bollard said...

Good point Ralph. Not all kids NEED to have clearly defined friends. Some kids like to be alone and some like to drift from one group to another without forming long-term attachments.

Anonymous said...

Although I am not a parent of a child with Asperger's I think I can contribute as I was a child with Asperger's. My own parents went through the whole trying to get me to make friends, and I wish they just understand not only did I not need them, but I had little in common with them, and inviting a mess of kids to my birthday that I couldn't relate to or tolerate was simple torture to me. I don't blame them either those children or my parents, but forced friendships do not work. Yes I didn't have many friends, but the ones I did make I treasured. Now with the internet I was able to make friends by shared interests and regularly go out and have fun. Asperger's does not equal a life without friends, it may mean a different childhood and life but that is hardly a disaster.

Cayne McNeil said...

I beg to differ on your last statement, I'm only in highschool but life with aspergers has been nothing short off a burden( similar to the one Atlas carries in Greek mythology)