One of the challenges of being autistic is making and keeping friends. How can you as a parent help nurture these friendships?
The neurodiversity movement recognizes and celebrates the diversity of how our brains are wired, instead of pathologizing some as normal and some as abnormal. The brains of autistic kids are wired differently. They take in sensory input in a different manner, and their resulting behaviors can be different. But we can value this diversity in our friendships and communities.
"Diversity is important. Understanding someone who is different from you is a good way of thinking," notes Bridget Gilliam, program supervisor at GBC Autism Services. "For kids who are not on the spectrum, it helps educate them about others around them that they might not understand, and it makes them more kind and compassionate."
One of the issues inherent in teaching neurotypical children about autism is that autism is complex and can present in a variety of ways, as it is a spectrum. But there are a few key features which stand out for many or most on the spectrum. The first is communication.
Autistic children often have difficulty communicating in a way that is socially acceptable. As Gilliam says, "Kids with autism process language differently than neurotypical kids do. To build a friendship with someone with autism, learn to communicate with them, and learn to be patient."
Some autistic kids may be nonverbal and use a communicator, which is an electronic device that speaks for them. Others may communicate via echolalia, which is repeating what is said to them. Some may limit the conversation to a topic with which they feel comfortable, such as a special interest. Other autistic children can have conversations, but avoid eye contact. Some need time to process the information coming in, and can hold a conversation, but slowly.
Above all, don't take a nontypical response personally. "It's not that they don't like you," explains Gilliam. "They might not know what to say or have the words. That's where patience comes back in as being important."
Imaginative play can sometimes be a challenge for kids on the spectrum, as they are often literal thinkers. This can make it hard for them to play in a traditional manner, but being adaptable is a good way to be a friend to someone who is autistic. Sometimes playing alongside of, and not with, an autistic child is a good way of including them without overwhelming them.
Another difference that is common among autistic people is engaging in self-stimulating behaviors, known as stimming. This may look odd at first, but stimming helps an autistic person regulate their nervous system. They may flap, jump or spin, clap their hands or snap their fingers, rock back and forth, or anything else that gives them sensory input and helps to calm themselves.
Gilliam says it's good to talk with your children about the behaviors they may see their autistic friends engaging in. "In helping them build friendships, it helps those kids understand. Because autistic kids engage in those behaviors, they aren't weird or strange. It's what makes them comfortable."
Autistic children often get overstimulated, which can sometimes lead to meltdowns. This may look like a tantrum, but isn't. A meltdown is an uncontrollable response to overwhelming sensory input like bright or fluorescent lighting, loud or constant noises, crowded, busy places, or even an itchy clothing tag. Parks are wonderful and exciting fun, but for a lot of autistic kids, it can be hard to manage a social situation on top of all of the sensory overload. Sometimes autistic kids will wear noise-canceling headphones, weighted vests or carry and stroke a stuffie to help navigate a potentially overwhelming experience.
Kids on the spectrum often flourish when their expectations are met via a routine. When this routine is altered or upset, it can be very hard for kids on the spectrum to manage their emotional response. This can also result in a meltdown.
Gilliam suggests talking to your children about autism and common behaviors so they are prepared when they see them on the playground or in the classroom. "Helping to understand in advance is helpful. Starting that out at the beginning can help a kid understand that kids with autism are going to do things a little differently, but that's OK." She advises parents to direct kids to ask them or a teacher if they see an unfamiliar behavior. Knowledge is the key to understanding.
In fact, teaching our children to be accepting of diversity in all areas leads to a more inclusive society. As Gilliam notes, "Parents can help their kids understand that not everybody likes the same things or does the same thing the same way, and that's OK. Helping teach those base-level ideas can help someone understand autism as well."
Carey Smith was inspired to write this article because of the efforts of her autistic son's friend, who is the most excellent friend a kid could have.