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.


How disabled people can become savvy consumers

Why is life more expensive if you are disabled? What can be done to bring this premium down? How we can enable disabled people to become smarter purchasers of goods and services?

That’s what  the year-long inquiry into disabled people’s extra costs took a close look at their first roundtable debate.

Here is Andy Simpson from the Family Fund explaining why life costs more for disabled families.

The event kicked off with Dr Roger Wicks director of policy and campaigns at Action on Hearing Loss explains where companies are going wrong and where the main challenges lie. Independent commissioner Martin Coppack explains how many businesses have a ‘mythical consumer’ and very streamlined front-line response teams.

Jonathan Stearn from Citizen’s Advice Bureau picked up on the theme that products targeted at targeted at specific groups fail. All consumers are vulnerable at different times, and disabled people are only vulnerable when they denied goods and services by company systems that are not responsive enough.


The debate focused on how we change the behaviour of companies, and make it easier for disabled people to be savvier consumers.

One great  idea was to target accountants for small businesses as a way of introducing new concepts because every small business uses them.  Another was the introduction of a ‘gold standard’ for organisations to aim for.

However, all too often disabled people aren’t consumers in a market because they can’t afford to get into it in the first place.  But there are solutions.

We heard how successful Motability is at creating a market in leased cars, scooters and powered wheelchairs for disabled people. All someone needs to take part is exchange their mobility allowance. This gives Motability a massive stake in the market and the leverage and expertise  to reduce costs, admin and time to the consumer.

Other great examples that were thrown into the mix included SENDirect that brokers information, advice and costs of services to parents of disabled children.

The final speaker was Richard Garner from Purple Compare on how he plans to update the concept of comparison websites to give disabled consumers better information, and crucially a better deal.

Find out more about Scope’s extra costs work.


How to have ‘the conversation’ when your child has a learning disability

Talking to children about sex is a discussion most parents find difficult. Tricky at the best of times, embarrassing and disastrous at the worst. But when your child has learning disabilities, the subject can be even more of a minefield. Will they understand? Will they be safe? Do they really need to know?

Gill Leno PSHE expertSex and relationship specialist therapist Gill Leno works with young people with a wide variety of complex learning, physical and sensory disabilities, as well as autistic spectrum disorders. She has been delivering sex and relationships education (SRE) in a variety of settings for some years, and believes that whatever is being done in schools and colleges can only go so far without the support and contribution of parents and carers.

“Good SRE needs to be a combined effort,” says Leno. “I know that sex is one of those things we often find hard to talk about, but lots of experience in talking and teaching about sex has led me to the firm belief that the only place anyone can really start the conversation properly is with honesty and the facts.”

Sex and relationships advice

Leno is one of Scope’s online community advisors, delivering sex and relationships advice online to parents and carers of people with learning disabilities. Despite the complex issues that sexuality and learning disabilities raise around consent and protection, she firmly believes all young people have a right to good, inclusive, accessible sex and relationships education.

“Learning about sex and relationships equips young people not only with the skills to say yes, but to say no, too,” Leno says. “Understanding emotions, boundaries and how to stay safe are vital for people with learning disabilities. A good, well-rounded awareness of sex and relationships is important as it helps to protect against abuse and exploitation as well as providing a solid framework for appropriate behaviour, both sexually and socially.”

Leno believes good sex and relationships education (SRE) plays an enormous part in underpinning young people’s progress towards independence. “It encourages and supports good social and sexual expression and a sense of self confidence. Educating children and young people from a position of sexual positivity, non-bias and inclusivity means that they will have the same information as their peers in mainstream education and helps to undo some of the damage that misinformation can cause.”

Sadly, young people and adults with learning disabilities are much less likely to have access to good SRE because of attitudes towards disability and sexuality, lack of accessible resources and lack of professionals qualified to provide the appropriate support.

People with learning disabilities often get negative messages about sex. “Don’t do that, it’s not nice!” “Stop touching yourself, that’s bad!” There can also be a lot of anxiety around giving the right amount of information or pitching it at an appropriate level. It can be difficult to strike a balance between protecting people with learning disabilities from risks and encouraging them to explore and develop wider personal and social relationships.

“Sex and relationships education can be hit and miss at the best of times,” says Leno. “Even in mainstream schools it’s fair to say that it can be inconsistent; young people frequently report that it’s too little, too late, and too focused on the biological end of things. The most important thing is to support all conversations about sex and relationships with the three Cs – compassion, clarity, consistency. Start with the facts and be honest. Don’t be afraid to approach others for help. Many of us did not receive good sex education at school ourselves, and it can make things feel much more difficult than it needs to be.”

This blog was first published in The Guardian Social Care Network. For tips on talking about sex and relationships with people who have learning disabilities, take a look at Scope’s online community.