by Shelby Morain, M.A., BCBA, LBA
Board Certified Behavior Analyst, LEARN/Autism Spectrum Therapies

Plenty of parents and caregivers of kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) worry about their child’s ability to make and maintain friends—and rightly so, considering that social deficits are one of the primary diagnostic criteria in ASD. Kids on the spectrum often need support to learn social norms. In addition, they can struggle with challenging behaviors that sometimes surface around peers—and need help managing those behaviors and developing healthy coping mechanisms.

With the start of school nearly upon us, how can you, as a parent or caregiver, help your child make friends? What role should you play in your child’s friendships, and what steps can you take now? Here, I share five steps.

Step 1: Seek behavioral or therapeutic support.

If your child engages in challenging behaviors, especially those that pose a safety risk, then addressing those behaviors should take priority above all other needs. Seek a qualified applied behavior analysis (ABA) provider, through which a board-certified behavior analyst (BCBA) can help your child reduce any concerning behaviors. Your BCBA can work with you to create an individualized plan that you can follow across a variety of settings, such as in your home or the grocery store. Likewise, if your child experiences any communication deficits, a BCBA can help them develop language and communication skills. This, in turn, will give your child a foundation for the social skills they need to start making friends.

Step 2: Create social opportunities with siblings or close family members.

In all likelihood, your child spends significant time with siblings and close family members. For this reason, family time can provide opportunities for frequent and focused learning. Activities like turn-taking, asking to borrow personal items, or various forms of play, such as pretend play, parallel play, and interactive play, can give your child a much-needed chance to practice and sharpen skills.

For instance, try setting up opportunities for your child to work on taking turns with family members. In many ways, turn-taking is an essential prerequisite for higher-level social skills like active listening and conflict resolution. A simple set up like reciprocal toy play, in which your child takes turns using a particular toy, is how most kids first learn critical social rules like making a request from peers, waiting for a turn, and allowing others to interact with a preferred item.

Step 3: Join a support group in your area.

With social media at our fingertips, it’s easier than ever for families to connect with each other to share resources, events, and contact information to set up play dates for their children. Even during times of doubt, stress, and pain, families can reach out, trade information, and rely on each other to offer a sympathetic ear and support. If you’re not already active in online communities, consider joining a group for families of kids with ASD or special needs. Then, find and reach out to other families whose child(ren) have similar interests and take part in similar activities. Many kids on the spectrum enjoy, for example, Special Olympics, sensory Sundays (i.e., activities that businesses host for those with sensory sensitivities), or social events hosted by a variety of businesses in their area.

Some of the closest friendships within the ASD community grow out of relationships among families whose children spend shared time together. If possible, find families whose children go to your child’s school. This can help your child feel more comfortable at school, especially in the first days and weeks.

Step 4: Speak with your child’s teacher and IEP team about social goals.

Since you can’t go to school with your child, take steps now to include social goals in your child’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Also speak with your IEP team about your child’s successes and challenges in their social skills journey—and consider inviting your child’s BCBA to IEP meetings. As a BCBA myself, I’m always eager to take part in IEP meetings so I can help families advocate for priorities targeted in their child’s treatment plan. Plus, having everyone on the same page to determine priorities can go a long way in helping your child generalize skills across situations and environments.

Step 5: Plan after-school and weekend activities with other families.

After-school social skills groups offered by your ABA provider give your child a safe and friendly environment in which to socialize—and practice socializing—with peers. These groups come with one-on-one professional support from a behavior technician or analyst, who can target and work on specific skill deficits. If your provider offers a social skills group for your child’s age range, consider signing up.

Like your child, you can take part in social events, too, and make friends with fellow parents. School-sponsored social events and parent evenings can give you a chance to mingle and chat. Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself and strike up a conversation. Over time, this sort of interaction can lead to  friendships for both you and your child—and to weekend plans to meet at, for example, a nearby park.

As you prepare for the fast-approaching school year, remember that the school experience is as much about socializing as it is about learning. Use these steps to set up your child for friendship success.

For more tips on raising kids with ASD, read our blog post, “How to Create a Calm-Down Kit.”