If you're the parent of a child on the Autism Spectrum, you know how wonderful and special your child is, and you hope he has the best possible experiences - academically, developmentally, and socially. However, there may be added obstacles in your child's path, especially when it comes to making friends and getting along with peers. Bullying is an issue for many students, but it may be an even bigger problem for students on the spectrum.
Unfortunately, research has shown us that kids with autism and Asperger’s:
- Have fewer friends than most kids their age
- Spend more lunch periods inside with adults rather than with friends
- Are less physically active than most kids their age
- Feel like the other kids don’t like them
- Have more anxiety than most kids their age
- Have more depression than most kids their age
- Are more likely than other kids to get bullied
So, what can you do? In Growing Up on the Spectrum: A Guide to Life, Love, and Learning for Teens and Young Adults with Autism and Asperger’s, Dr. Lynn Kern Koegel and Claire LaZebnik offer some practical suggestions for helping your child on the spectrum feel safe in every environment. Here are a few:
- Spend enough time at school to know when and where your child is safe.
If your child is at the age when he doesn’t want a parent around, making a point of dropping off that missed homework or forgotten lunch at a social time of day (e.g. lunch or a free period) will help you understand how your child is faring in his social interactions and may give you some hints about what social skills you need to be working on at home.
- Help your child get involved in a club, even if you have to start it yourself.
Children at all ages love clubs. Many high schools have lots of clubs, but if there isn’t one your child finds appealing, you can help develop one. This will give your child the opportunity to interact with peers who have similar interests.
- Have regular get-togethers or parties that are short and fun.
Getting a group of kids together for a special activity always helps with making friends, but be sure the get-together is structured and that there’s always plenty to do. Kids on the spectrum often fail miserably when they try to “just hang out.” Clear expectations and specific activities will keep them engaged and interacting.
- Insist on more supervision at school, even if you have to recruit a group of parents to walk the halls.
Schools sometimes don't understand that supervision is critical during those times that the children are most likely to be bullied. For instance, changing time in the locker room is often a difficult time for many kids. Make sure there’s always a staff member in the locker room, even if you have to put it in your child’s IEP. Also, research shows that more adults walking the halls results in fewer behavior problems across the board. So get a bunch of friends together and start walking!
- Find a peer buddy who will help your child safely get to classes.
There are always very kind kids in any given school. Recruit these kids to be a buddy to your child and accompany him through the hallways.
- Teach the students at your child’s school about disabilities.
People are much less likely to be scared of behaviors if they understand them. If the typical peers are made aware of your child’s challenges and how he’s struggling to overcome them, they’ll be far more likely to lend him a hand.
- Teach your child behaviors that will help her make friends.
There are a lot of ways that you can teach your child to make and maintain friendships. Sharing is one. Asking questions is another. Good phone and electronic etiquette are essential. If your child is on the spectrum, she may need help with these areas.
- Teach your child when to ignore bullies and when to stand up to them.
Different situations call for different responses. It’s a tricky thing to figure out, so help your child learn to identify different situations and teach him the appropriate response for each one. There are times when the best response is no response and there are other times when standing up to a bully may be the only option. And standing up doesn’t mean fighting back – many schools have mediators who can tackle the situation from both sides.