Making friends – parents’ tips for teaching social skills

Making friends can be a challenge for some disabled children and adults (such as those with learning disabilities or autism). But there are ways you can help teach them to overcome their fears and make friends.

The following tips have been contributed by members of our online community. While there is no one-size-fits-all
solution, they may give you some ideas to help support your child in making and keeping friends.

Role play

Friendships and social interaction are extremely important for self-esteem. But it doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Making friends takes practice, and you can help your child by rehearsing social situations and role playing ahead of time.

Learning to ask questions

I coached my daughter in how to ask questions and make conversation by playing a role-play game with her.  I pretended to be a famous reporter interviewing her about her Moshi Monsters collection. Then we’d swap characters.  She actually liked being the famous reporter!

Picture cards

Use picture cards that show a variety of emotions in faces and body language. This can help the person you care for interpret the visual cues for when someone is getting angry, bored, sad, frustrated or happy. Work up to using video clips of these emotions acted out.

Follow their interests

I include friends in my son’s hobbies. My son has had a lifelong interest in art museums, so we often bring along a friend. Another fascination is carnivorous plants, so I brought a group of his peers to the botanical garden to see the venus fly traps and pitcher plants.

Small easy steps

When you are teaching the social skills to make friendships, try breaking them down into small, easy steps. Give plenty of encouragement for each goal your child reaches.

Ask the teacher

It can be worth asking your child’s teacher if there are children at school they seem to connect with. Keep these suggestions in mind for ‘play dates’.

Children playingFind an activity

Build play-dates around fun, interesting activities all children will enjoy. Think creative and prepare.  I once gave each child a ball of pizza dough and had a pizza-making lunch.  Bear in mind mainstream kids will probably love all the SN kit, sensory features, trampolines etc!

Invite friends home

Encourage friendships by inviting others to your home. The person you care for will usually be more relaxed in the home environment and will be more able to work on appropriate social interaction.

NAS guide

NAS GuideNational Autistic Society have produced an excellent guide: Social skills for adults and adolescents.

Know the limits

Sometimes I push my son to tolerate longer periods of socialising; but I also know how to make a hasty retreat when I see a shift in mood or agitation. When he was younger, I limited play dates to about 1 hour, but now he enjoys 2 hours. Being sensitive to his mood increases his interest in planning future play dates.

Review and re-boot

At the end of the day, talk about what you learned and what you would like to do next time. With friends, there’s always a next time!

Practice turn taking

My adult son still struggles with sharing, taking turns, going ” first” or “last”. I try and practice and prepare him as much as possible at every opportunity, be it dishing up at the table or getting into the car. It definitely helps with his social skills.

Peer mentors

A good mainstream school should set up ‘peer mentors‘ or ‘buddies’ for your child with special needs. Teachers should look for existing positive relationships other classmates have with your child, and identify someone who they can guide to help with encouraging appropriate communication skills.

Raise awareness

It’s good to be honest and upfront about the needs of the person you are caring for.  I noticed my daughter was getting stared at in Brownies so I did a short talk to the pack about her disabilities and how they affect her. It really helped.

Parallel playParallel play

Don’t knock parallel play – its a start!  My son with ASD doesn’t like to interact much but he will happily engage in the same activities alongside other people.  It can fuel interaction or friendships – especially if they’re is a common shared interest.

Identify goals

Think about short-term and long-term development of social skills. Break down those stages of development into tiny steps and create the “scaffolding” to support each step for the person you care for.

We’d love to hear your tips for teaching social skills and encouraging friendships. What strategies do you use? What has worked for your child? If you’ve got an idea to share please let us know.