It's a paradox: One defining characteristic of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is social impairment. Yet most kids with ASD need and want friends, and they have a lot to offer their "neurotypical" peers, says Christina Adams, author of A Real Boy: A True Story of Autism, Early Intervention, and Recovery. How to bridge the divide? Adams and other parents of autistic children offer a few suggestions to keep in mind as you and your children interact with autistic kids:
- Bond through simple child's play. Games like follow-the-leader or rolling a ball back and forth can be a good way to connect with children who have autism, since many enjoy simple interactive play, says Karen Siff Exkorn, author of The Autism Sourcebook: Everything You Need to Know About Diagnosis, Treatment, Coping, and Healing. To minimize frustration, she recommends guiding the new playmates to activities the child with autism already enjoys. "You don't want to have a situation where the typical peer says, 'Let's build a tower!' to a child with autism who has poor motor skills."
- Don't be afraid to ask questions. If you or your child is feeling nervous before a playdate or group outing, it can help to inquire about special situations that might arise and how to handle them. Some ASD kids are extremely sensitive to loud noise, for example. You might ask how to calm a child if the volume level gets too high during an afternoon play session.
- Invite autistic peers to your children's birthday parties. If two hours at a loud, chaotic arcade isn't their cup of tea, they or their parents can always decline. Autistic kids and their families know when they're being left out, and it hurts, says Adams.
- Don't give up. Many autistic kids are capable of connecting with their peers, but not always on the first try. If your initial efforts to be friendly didn't elicit much response, "try a different day, try a different way," suggests Nancy Wiseman, founder of First Signs, Inc., specializing in young children's developmental disorders.
- Don't judge. That meltdown you're witnessing at the playground could be the response of an overstimulated autistic child, and parents say hard stares from strangers only make them, and their child, feel more isolated. If you see a parent really struggling, reach out, suggests Wiseman: Ask if you can help in any way.
Originally published in the November 2005 issue of Child magazine.