Building strong social skills is something that many kids on the autism spectrum struggle to do. It can be difficult for them to interpret emotions or interact with their peers, but that doesn’t mean that every child with autism prefers to play alone. Even if they do prefer spending time without playmates, you may want to encourage your son or daughter to communicate with others on a regular basis. Social roles play a big part in determining everyone’s success in life.
Rather than let your child immerse themselves in books or electronics this year, encourage the development or improvement of social skills with these three practical ideas from Autisable.
Attend Summer Camp
Summer camp lets your child enjoy the day in a structured environment packed with fun activities. The type of camp you choose depends on where your child sits on the spectrum. Before you select a camp, ask yourself the following questions:
- Do counselors or volunteers have experience with children who have autism?
- Is there a strong policy in place to protect your child from potential bullies?
- Can your child communicate wants and needs with little to no help?
- Does your child experience separation anxiety when you drop him off at school or with friends?
If you answered no to some – or all – of the questions above, you may want to choose a day camp rather than an overnight camp for your child. Regpack notes that there are 5,000 day camps in the United States, and some of them let you pay per day rather than on a weekly or monthly basis. This gives you time to test out the camp and see how your child reacts.
Does your child have friends who invite him or her over regularly, or do you have kids who can come play at your home? If not, jot down your name, number, and email address on notecards, and have your child (or his teacher or paraprofessional) distribute them to classmates. Another idea is to join a local parenting group or get involved with activities at church. This makes it easy for you to find potential playmates for your child.
Keep in mind that some parents do not understand autism and may be hesitant to let your child play with their kids. They may mistakenly assume that kids who have autism are always violent, or they may fear that autism is simply the result of negligent parenting. If you encounter a parent like this, calmly share some facts about autism if you feel comfortable doing so. Mention that the condition affects 1 out of every 54 children, according to the National Autism Association, so there are probably several kids with autism at your child’s school. Explain how you handle meltdowns, if applicable, and who supervises children during playdates at your home.
If you have a hard time finding kids to play with your child, focus on scheduling family outings. Many places now offer special sensory-friendly days geared toward kids with sensory processing disorder or autism, so you can enjoy a peaceful outing with your loved ones. You can also visit places on weekdays to avoid crowds or have your child don sunglasses and a hat to block out stimuli.
Spend Time with Dogs
Some kids with autism prefer to spend time with animals rather than people. A dog is a nonjudgmental play partner that helps encourage your child to display a kind, loving attitude. Your child can take the dog to local dog parks and spend the day surrounded by fellow dog walkers without feeling pressured to converse with any of them. A dog also helps your child start conversations during interactions with new people. He can introduce the dog and share some facts that you’ve taught him about his furry friend instead of feeling obligated to talk about himself.
If your child has extreme – or even debilitating – autism symptoms, he may benefit from a specially-trained autism service dog. In addition to the benefits a family pooch has to offer, certified autism service dogs can improve your child’s quality of life by:
- Helping him with daily tasks, like getting ready for school
- Acting as a supportive, calming presence when he’s feeling overstimulated, which can help prevent meltdowns
- Barking at or otherwise alerting nearby people when he is having an emergency
Regardless of the type of dog you bring home, some children on the autism spectrum need time to adjust to a new animal. Monitor your child closely around the dog until you know that they both feel comfortable with each other. You may want to join your child and his four-legged friend on walks or linger closely behind if you fear that he may get lost or anxious during his outings.
During the school year, your child may have a hectic schedule filled with activities such as homework, occupational therapy, and school functions. But off times like spring and summer break typically have fewer commitments, so you can take time to help your child strengthen social skills without overwhelming him.