Saturday 23 February 2019

I want my autistic child to make friends

Two furry teddy bears leaning against one another, facing the camera

Many parents new to the world of autism are worried that their child won't have friends.

It's certainly true that autistic children can struggle in a non-autistic world.  But there's lots of hope ahead.

The important thing is that the parents know about autism.  Knowing that it's part of brain diversity, not a disease.  In the same way as being dyslexic is a brain diversity.
Knowing that it means their child is probably sensing the world very differently, with way too much information coming in from some senses, and way too little from others.

I recommend that parents have a look at This two minute video, with the sound turned right up  and experience the possible world of their child, in any busy, noisy place.  Parties, for example.  Classrooms.  Supermarkets.  So loud, so bright, so overwhelming.

Parents also need to know that autistic children speak a different 'social language' to other children, so there are misunderstandings on both sides.  It's never the fault of one side or the other.  Both sides need to learn how to 'speak' some of each other's languages.

Autistic children prefer to meet somewhere where there isn't a crowd of others.
They prefer to play alongside another child, using separate toys or games.
They don't make a lot of eye contact, because it hurts tremendously to do so, but they see well out of the side of their eyes, and can hear amazingly well when it's quiet enough to do so.
On average, they play more fairly than others.  But, they may panic if someone takes their stuff away or moves it.  Why?  Go back and watch that two minute video again, and think about what would be calming for that young boy.  A favourite thing?  A familiar pattern?

So often, parents hope that their autistic child will want to go to lots and lots of busy, noisy parties, and make polite conversation.  It makes sense to think this, because that probably works for a lot of other children.'s hell.  Just hell for them.  The chances of an autistic child making a friend when they're in lots of sensory pain are very limited.  Mostly, they'll hide, or freeze, or run away, or maybe get into such a panic that they may lash out in fear.  Certainly they won't be able to think how to say anything useful.  Much better to find their favourite hobby, and find a club for young people to share that.  Local autism charities may well know of such ones.  There are also specialist play centres.  Parties might work if they are structured and in a good sensory environment.  Outdoor play for example, well managed.

There's good humorous books such as this one, talking about the strange behaviour of non-autistic people ("NTs").  I'd recommend such books for the adults in the family as well as the younger people, because there's so much normal human behaviour that is really odd.  But because most people do it, it's accepted.

Schools can really help.  They can learn that autistic children need downtime to recover from sensory hell.  They can learn that a quiet space and a useful hobby can be much better than going out into the deafening swirl of the playground.  They can be understanding of shutdowns and meltdowns, and realise that's emergency behaviour, distress behaviour - not 'challenging behaviour'.  Schools can arrange fabulous training from places like the Autistic Pride networks, which look at self esteem and how to change the thinking of the teams.  Or from companies such as AT-Autism, who likewise look at team training and making life easier for everyone.

And other parents can help, too.  If you invite an autistic child round to play, expect them to play autistically.  Don't be offended if they cannot speak at the time, or need to leave early.  Let them bring their own comforting items and explain to your own child why their friend plays differently.  But that the play is a sign of respect, not rudeness.  In autistic lives, parallel playing and keeping sensory distraction to a minimum can be very respectful indeed of other autistic people around us.

You can help as a parent by explaining positively about your child.  If they use repetitive movements, explain that it helps them keep track of where their body is, or helps them keep calm.  Know that good research shows it doesn't stop them concentrating.   You can be watching out for children who take advantage of them, or enjoy bullying them or getting them into trouble. 

Help by refusing to buy into expensive and useless 'treatments' that allege to stop autism.  It's like trying to stop someone being 5ft 6.  Autism is built-in.  Be aware that a lot of the 'treatments' are now linked to really, really bad outcomes for the children later on. Even the 'evidence-based' ones you may hear about.  The evidence for some was that it trains the children not to say or show they're in pain any more.  Not good for any child.   A good speech and language therapist can help if a child has difficulty communicating, though.  They can find what works, whether it's speech, technology, sign or otherwise.

It's a beautiful, fascinating world.  Certainly one where there's not enough knowledge, not enough training or support yet for families.  And certainly some young autistic people need a lot of support in their early lives.

But letting them being themselves, wonderfully autistic, (safely, of course), is the right thing.  They will learn, and grow, and get confidence.  Just on a different timeline, perhaps to that of other children.  But every bit as valid, every bit as treasured.  Some will go on to be the world's specialists, and  - yes - have good friends.  Not hundreds, no.  But good.  People who respect them for who they are.  Quite possibly online friends.  (Safely, of course).

Bringing up our own autistic son was an amazing journey.  Whilst I have a lot to say about a few people who didn't make life easy, and a lot to say about the pressure on parents from society...I am so proud of him.  Just so proud.  Just because he's his own fantastic self.

Now an adult, a well respected adviser and trainer....on autism...