For a person with autism, socializing can be difficult. Individuals with autism range across the spectrum in their ability to socialize and learn social skills. But in general, social skills, though a significant challenge, can be acquired through patience, practice, and persistence.
Whereas most people are born to socialize naturally, for children on the autism spectrum, social cues and appropriate social behavior are not innate. Children on the spectrum can be overly shy or overly talkative, both of which can make them the target of isolation or bullying. Taking a look at some strategies to overcome such targeting can make a tremendous impact on one’s social life, as well as their self-image and entire well-being.
1. Eye Contact with Care
Eye contact is key to social interaction. Many individuals with autism have difficulty with eye contact, so using a mirror or other self-reflecting tools can be helpful in exploring facial features and emotions.
Expecting consistent eye contact can be disillusioning. Start by encouraging body listening and having them learn to face the individual with whom they’re socializing. They may need to learn where their body is in space and in relationship to the person. There are great tools for learning body awareness as well. The key is to teach imitation, reciprocity (turn-taking), and context clues (recognizing facial and verbal expressions). Doing so with props and a concrete tool can be highly beneficial.
2. Play Dates with Structure
Having a play date can be a disaster for individuals who need structure to socialize. Adding in supervision, direction, and a clear activity to do with a partner or friend can encourage a very successful play date. So instead of just a free for all play date, try a date to make something, build something or learn something together. Having a common interest will make dialog less forced and more natural. Love bugs? Set up a bug hunting date? Love science? Set up a date to do an experiment. You may even want to have your first date in a sensory room.
3. Get To Know
Be sure you get to know the individual’s likes, dislikes, personality, and preferences before working on social skills. It’s crucial to meet them where they are. That will be your starting point, but you must know what that is. What are their interests? What do they like to talk about? To do? Once you understand, you can build social skills, social time, and social lessons from a place of comfort.
4. Pairing with Awareness
When looking for peers or a social buddy, be aware. Finding someone who is tolerant of differences and secure in their own skin is helpful. Be aware that kids on the autism spectrum can be the target of isolation and bullying. Their need to over-talk or under-talk makes it difficult for them to fit into social groups, and unfortunately, others may decide it’s easier to leave them out. Or, for those who are not so secure themselves, make them the target of bullying. So bully beware when pairing them up or selecting friends.
5. Drop the Technology
Many people are consistently engaged with a phone, tablet, or computer. Learning to socialize without a gadget can be painful for someone who prefers isolation and for whom technology provides so much pleasure. List a few pleasurable activities, such as playing with a dog, riding a bike, fishing, drawing, dancing, hiking, etc. Teach your student to use this list daily and find peers who enjoy similar activities.
6. Let’s Go Camping
Summer camp, or a specialized summer camp in particular, can provide new skills, new friends, and new social skills. Summer camps for kids with autism are plentiful and can provide a non-threatening environment where one-on-one and group social skills can be learned through common interests and communal living.
As you proceed down the social teaching road, be sure to keep your hopes high and your heart open. Break the learning into small lessons, and be sure to celebrate each and every accomplishment with a smile!