Most children with autism have a tough time fitting in with their peers. In fact, because autism's core symptoms include difficulty with social communication, social problems are almost inevitable. But while your child with autism may not ever become the homecoming king or queen (though nothing is impossible!), there are some concrete steps you can take as a parent to help your child make sense of the expectations of people around them.
Teach Your Child to Speak Like a Child
Speech and social therapists mean well, and often they do well. But most therapists are grown women. And most children with autism are little boys. As a result, it is not uncommon to hear little boys with autism speaking uncannily like grown women. "How are you today?" "It's a pleasure to meet you!" "How was your weekend?"
While phrases like these will stand your child in good stead when he grows up, it will put him at a disadvantage on the playground. So listen in to therapy sessions, make suggestions, and, whenever possible, help your child out by teaching him (or, ideally, having other children teach him) kid-speak. Kids don't say "Thank you so much for the lovely gift," they say "wow, this is cool - thanks!"
Teach Your Child to Play
As a parent, you will have noticed that your child generally prefers solo play, and rarely if ever chooses pretend play. Solo play isn't a problem in itself, of course, but in order for your child to take part in any type of group play she will need the skills to do so.
Why is interactive play so difficult for children with autism? To begin with, few children with autism actively observe and imitate their peers or parents or even their favorite movies. So while other children are playing "house," or becoming super heroes, children with autism build towers of legos. While other children are "feeding" their baby dolls or stuffed animals, children with autism are doing the same puzzles over and over again.
Your child's choice of solo activity isn't wrong or bad, but it is limiting. And without play skills, your child won't have the ability to choose inclusion if it's right for her.
You can become your child's teacher by actually instructing him or her in the art of play. Floortime and RDI are two therapeutic techniques that parents can use to encourage symbolic play; alternatively you can simply follow your own imagination. Either way, your goal is to teach your child how to pretend, how to play, and -- just as importantly -- how to communicate with others through play, whether verbally or non-verbally.
Teach Your Child Basic Sports Skills and Terms
All too often, children with autism spend their days at school and their afternoons and evenings in therapy. Unlike other children, they have little opportunity to learn basic sports skills or terms. On the weekends, when other children may toss a ball around with their fathers or siblings, children with autism are generally sidelined -- either involved with therapeutic activities or unable to keep up physically with their typically developing peers.
The result, of course, is that children with autism are left behind when it comes to absolutely basic information such as "a baseball is smaller than a soccer ball," or terms such as goal, touchdown, dribble, or shoot.
By the time a child with autism is old enough for inclusion in team sports -- even "special" team sports -- he or she is so far behind his or her peers there's almost no way to catch up. Imagine an eight year old who doesn't grasp the object of the game of soccer, or a nine year old who has never heard of "shooting hoops." Yes, he or she could potentially run around on the sidelines, but where other kids have been watching, taking part in pee wee sports, and practicing at home, the child with autism has had none of those advantages. And that's in addition to autistic issues ranging from poor muscle tone to difficulty in processing a coach's instructions.
You, as a parent, can rectify this situation by taking responsibility for actively teaching basic sports skills to your child. You may decide to teach him or her ball handling and sports terms, or your may decide to choose a sport that you both enjoy that's not team-dependent (hiking, fishing, swimming, etc.). Either way, however, you can give your child a head start and prepare him or her for social engagement outside of school.
Teach Your Child to Navigate a Playground
No one is immune to playground politics, let alone a child with autism. But you can help your child with autism to navigate the basics of playground play by visiting playgrounds together or with siblings and friends, and practicing some of the expected behaviors. It's important to understand that playground supervisors may never teach these skills, as they assume "kids just know these things." A few key skills include:
- Teach your child to stand in line (slide down the slide, then go to the back of the slide and wait your turn)
- Teach your child to swing (learn to pump rather than wait for an adult to push)
- Teach your child safe and fun climbing techniques (always have two hands and a foot or two feet and a hand on the climbing structure, etc.)
- Teach your child how to ask an adult for help when needed.
Watch Age Appropriate TV and Movies with Your Child
Just like adults, kids share their impressions of movies and TV with their peers. If your child with autism isn't watching -- or is watching only shows for younger children -- he will have no idea what his peers are talking about. Whether it's graduating from Dora the Explorer to Sponge Bob, or from Sponge Bob to The Avengers, it's important for your child to engage with the same characters as his peers. In order for him to really understand and engage with the characters and plots, though, he'll likely need your help. Yes, you will need to sit down and watch Sponge Bob! And amazingly you may discover that you like it!
Of course, teaching your child with autism the skills described here won't take away the autism. But they will give him key skills for fitting in and connecting with other children.