Imagine this… you have a son who is five years old, in kindergarten, and is at recess. His school mates run around on the playground playing super heroes, four-square and climbing on the jungle gym. Your son is off to the side twirling a leaf and reciting a script he learned from his favorite Sponge Bob Square Pants episode. He doesn’t look at the other children. It really is as if they’re not even there. When prompted to come play by his teacher, he says, “No. Sponge Bob needs to play with Patrick. He is going to the Krusty Krab!” In the end, your son continues to play out his TV episode and does not acknowledge the other children playing on the playground or engage in the world around him.
This is not an uncommon scenario. Without an aide or a teacher prompting your son to use the skills he has learned in Speech & Language Therapy or Social Skills class, he does not recognize the cues to talk with other children his own age.
As a mom, this type of scene is heartbreaking. No one wants to see a child without at least one friend to connect with.
Remember those days when you spent hours with your friends doing things you both enjoyed?
Many children with Autism will have difficulty making that happen, but what can we, as parents, do to help children make friends and support diversity on the playground?
In recent years, with all of the coverage of Autism on the rise and the increase in inclusion in neighborhood school classrooms, many schools have begun to hold classes with guest speakers to help all children accept their differences as unique aspects of their personality. What makes us different make us unique.
In the first grade, my daughter and her classmates talked about how people may be different than them. They learned that people speak, communicate and handle school differently. They specifically talked about why Sophie, a girl in her class who has Autism, did what she did. Sophie, with the help of her parents, talked about how:
- She loved Hannah Montana and could recite every word of every episode.
- Why she needed to walk around the classroom when she had been sitting too long.
- Why she threw a tantrum when she had to do her writing.
- How she communicated, what she liked to do, eat and the things she did not like.
Many schools do this on a variety of issues: Autism, Down Syndrome, asthma, peanut allergies, etc. The purpose is not to point out the differences between the students, but to educate them and prepare them to interact with each of the children in the classroom, and to make it more normal to do so. Teachers call it inclusion. We call it developing a ‘Circle of Friends’.
Developing a Circle of Friends helps typical children:
- Develop an awareness of the children in their community and know how to help them.
- Develop friendships with children who have similar interests but may have different abilities.
They become a good model for children who may have difficulties with social skills, and they also learn to accept each person’s differences.
When my daughter came home after that classroom presentation, she told us about Sophie. My husband and I felt like we knew all about her, and my daughter was excited about seeing her the next day at school. She saw herself being her friend. We live in a small town where you see everyone in recreational sports games, the pool, etc. We later saw Sophie at the pool, and we began to talk with Sophie’s parents about her. What we didn’t realize was that while we were talking, my daughter and Sophie were swimming in the pool together and talking about Hannah Montana… my daughter’s favorite show, too!
After that day at the pool, Sophie and my daughter began to develop a friendship that focused on the things that they both liked. They learned how to turn things around when Sophie became stuck in a conversation. Their friendship helped them both have an awareness of the world around them. My daughter became Sophie’s champion as well as her friend.
So, as a mom, you may be thinking, “How can we help develop a Circle of Friends in my community and how can my children get involved?” A good place to start is to get to know some of the children who are in your child’s class, a recreation program in your town, or friends who may have a child with Autism or other special needs. Please consider:
- Similar interests: Do the children have something to talk about?
If they have something in common to talk about, it is easier to engage each child.
- Behavior: How is behavior managed out in the community?
It is important to know about how a child reacts when they have to share.
- Communication: How does the child communicate with others?
It is important to know how a child communicates and how your child would interact with them. Some children use words, while others have communication devices or use sign language.
Once you have met a child you think will be a good match, it is best to meet with the parents so you have a better understanding of the child. You can also visit sites such as www.ThrivingWithAutism.com to learn more about Autism.
Children with Autism often communicate in different ways. They may be working on social skills like saying “Hi!” to friends or saying certain phrases. This will be great for your child to know, because they can positively reinforce those skills with a peer. They may be using an iPad to communicate or maybe they have a picture board. It really is great to help a child with Autism use what they are learning in therapy… and keep the good communication coming.
Therapists working with children with Autism focus on getting children to generalize the skills they are learning. What this means is to help them use what they are learning with many different people and in many different places. When your child does what they do naturally, those skills will help a child with Autism learn the skills and use them more often.
It’s like when you learn how to speak a foreign language: you listen to other people pronounce the word and you use the words while communicating. You receive a positive response when someone understands what you are saying. Awesome! You are likely to do it again.
When done in a way that the child with Autism learns best (using things they are interested in) the skills will stick!
If you watch most children, they often know what will work, because they are observant. My child knew right off the bat what worked with Sophie… and what definitely did not work. She could come up with good ideas that they could do together. She also knew of other children who could be good friends with Sophie. Her knowledge helped Sophie build a Circle of Friends. Our openness to connect with Sophie’s family, whom we did not know until we met them at the pool, helped them both develop a network of support that will be carried with Sophie into adulthood.