"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
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.
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.