For an individual with Autism, socializing can be quite excruciating if not painful. Individuals with Autism can range across the spectrum in their ability to socialize and learn social skills. 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 him the target of isolation or bullying. Looking at some strategies to overcome such targeting can make a tremendous impact on one’s social life but also their self-image and entire well-being.
1. Eye Contact with Care
Learning eye contact is key to social interaction. Many individuals with autism have difficulty with eye contact. Using a mirror or tools that help them explore facial features and emotions can be helpful. Expecting consistent eye contact can be disillusioning. Start with encouraging body listening by having them learn to face the individual who is talking or they are socializing with. They may need to learn where their body is in space and in relationship to the person with whom they are engaging. There are great tools for learning body awareness as well. Key points here are to teach imitation, reciprocity (turn taking) and context clues (recognizing facial and verbal expressions) but 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. 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 make 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 that you meet them where they are. That will be your starting point, but you need to know what that is. What are his interests? What does he like to talk about or do? Once you have an understanding, 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 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 its often easier to leave them out or, for those who are not so secure themselves, make them the target of bullying. Therefore, bully beware when paring them up or selecting friends.
5. Drop the Technology
It’s a tough world out there. Everyone is engaged….with a phone, pad or computer. Learning to socialize in the absence of a gadget can be downright painful for someone who prefers isolation and for whom technology provides so much pleasure. Make a list of a couple activities, though a few is better, that provide pleasure such as; playing with a dog, riding a bike, fishing, drawing, dancing, hiking and so forth. Teach your student to use this list daily and for finding 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 expectations low, hopes high and your heart open. Break the learning into small lessons (e.g.: learning to answer the phone) and be sure to celebrate each and every accomplishment with a smile.