Helping kids with autism connect

BOSTON • Building a relationship with someone on the autism spectrum can require more patience and understanding than establishing ties with a neurotypical peer.

Social situations may require special engineering, such as strict adherence to a schedule or an awareness of sensitivity to light and sound.

Freelance writer Kendra Stanton Lee, whose brother is also on the autism spectrum, asked parents and specialists how families could be better advocates and community members in a neurodiverse world.

Plan ahead and communicate

Lee has not thrown many birthday parties for her children because the idea makes her sweat. But she is starting to realise that she needs to model being a gracious host so her kids can follow suit.

Ms Bridget Dujardin, an occupational therapist and founder of Boston Sensory Solutions, offered some ideas on how Lee and her children can help families for whom social situations are hard.

"If several guests at the party take turns buddying up for 20-minute blocks and try to include a child who is on the spectrum, it's a win-win because typically developing kids need to learn to interact with people with differences too," she says.

Ms Mary Piper of Delmont, Pennsylvania, remembers taking her son Franklin, six, who has autism, to a birthday party at an indoor jump park. She said Franklin was more interested in checking out the vending machines than participating in the designated activities.


"The concept of 'stay with the party' - stuff we take for granted - is something we need to teach them step by step."

Something as simple as giving a loose schedule to guests, so they know what to expect, can help ease stress for kids with autism and their parents.

Overcome discomfort with friendliness

Reverend Mindi Welton-Mitchell, a pastor in Seattle, whose son A.J. has autism, says teaching kids not to be fearful of differences is an important part of socialisation.

"We have a culture where we fear the 'other', so... kids make fun or are just afraid to engage. Getting away from the fear is a huge step towards inclusion," she adds.

She appreciates A.J.'s elementary school for this reason. "The staff and teachers all model inclusivity. They make an effort to know A.J.'s name and say hi to him."

She describes one pupil who goes out of her way to greet A.J. and try to get a response. "If he ignores her, she'll keep trying. She doesn't get upset. She just says, 'Okay, I'll try again later'," Rev Welton-Mitchell says. "That's the big thing, when other kids get scared, there's at least one child in his class who is not afraid."

Extend the invites

A 2015 study by the Simons Simplex Collection found that 32 per cent of parents with at least one child on the autism spectrum said other people excluded them from social events and activities.

"I want other parents to understand that our situation is different and that it may be harder for us at times to participate in parent groups, but it's still important to be included," Rev Welton-Mitchell says. "Sometimes we're excluded unintentionally, or for whatever reason, it just sometimes happens."

Take an interest

Many parents love it when someone takes an interest in their kid.

In Ms Piper's case, her son Franklin has a captive interest in mechanics. "We'll go to the most beautiful art museum and Franklin will ask the guards about the lift and what kind of alarm system they have."

She has seen this interest open up new opportunities for social interaction. When there was a fire alarm being inspected at his school, for example, Franklin was summoned. "The principal let Franklin talk to the repairman about it," she says.

This is friendship building 101 - finding out someone's interests and engaging him in conversations on those subjects.

"In my practice, kids often like dinosaurs or Minecraft," Ms Dujardin says. "If we can involve them in that activity, that kids of different abilities like and are skilled at, that tends to focus them on the activity, instead of their differences.

"Just because a kid is on the spectrum doesn't mean he can't be a friend and that he doesn't bring something to the table," she says.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 28, 2018, with the headline 'Helping kids with autism connect'. Print Edition | Subscribe