Being socially connected, having friends, and being part of a network is something your autistic teen desires. Friendships are key for emotional and physical health. Healthy relationships will help your child grow in new ways. Healthy relationships help to develop the self-determination necessary for independence. Building a network helps with navigating the complexities of life. Networks are groups of people that provide support, ideas, and encouragement for all aspects of life. Your child needs friends, a love interest, and a healthy network of good people for a full life. You can coach your child on ways to build healthy relationships.
Here are some strategies for making friends and building relationships:
- Help your child reflect on recent interactions. Write down ideas in a journal and revisit them to build social skills.
- Did your child give the other person an opportunity to talk? Praise your child for developing good conversational skills and talk about why it helps build relationships.
- Did your child become argumentative or did the conversation become heated? Explore what happened, get to the root cause of why the conversation escalated. Discuss what your child can do differently in the future.
- What was the other person doing during the conversation? Were they smiling and listening? Did they appear to be interested in talking about the topic? Talk about body language and ways to read other people.
- Recognize most everyone struggles with building relationships.
Remind your teen that struggling to make friends is not abnormal. Your teen should hear that making friends is a skill that can happen and will happen with practice. Your words of encouragement will change your teen’s perspective over time.
- Practice, practice, practice.
Making friends, meeting a mate, finding a group takes a lot of repetitive practice. Teach this strategy:
- Accept mistakes will happen
- Learn from your mistakes
- Get back out and try again.
The alternative is a lonely life. Learning how to build relationships is worth the effort.
- Practice in real time.
Build in feedback in real time situations. Praise your child by pointing out what went right and why the interaction was a step in the right direction. Be specific. If your teen is open to feedback about what went wrong, use the opportunity to talk about it. Do not be harsh. Discuss the interaction in a way that recognizes we are all on life’s journey and developing these friendship skills for lasting relationships is part of the journey.
- Find a peer mentor.
Feedback from a kind and mature peer will have less sting and carry more weight than your parental feedback. Look around your network for wise and kind teens to mentor your child. The effect will be much more impactful if your teen is learning from someone besides you or a service provider.
- Teach manners.
Being polite in every situation is always a winning strategy. Buy a few of the Miss Mannners books and read them with your teen. Practice good manners. It is a winning strategy.
- Skip social skills groups and find Meet Ups.
Your teen wants to be “normal” and become an independent adult. Find ways for your teen to make friends and join groups with other people of shared interests. Are there classes in the community? Is the library hosting an event? How about events on the app “Meetup”? These are “normal” ways that adults find new friends. Teach your child to look for friends using these strategies.