One of the concerns I have with daughters with autism is that they have friends. An interesting concept is something people in the disability community call community building. Many times people think of special education as a place or a room. In reality special education is a set of services that could happen any place.
Similarly, people think of community building as a place. In reality it is more of an experience. There is also a set of feelings attached to community building. Feelings like being valued, being connected, and being responsible to other people.
When people are looking to develop friendships through community building they need to think about themselves and their friendships. You might notice if your friends are the same or different. Thinking about where or how you met your friends might help. It also might help to think about what activities you might have been participating in.
When helping people with autism develop friendships we need to remember that friendships start with people sharing everyday activities and situations. Friendships also require some work. They just don’t happen the people involved have to put in some effort.
Other people’s gifts, talents, and personality usually attract attention the desire for friendships. Friendships don’t last forever. The friendship may last for a while. It may last for a long time. Both people have to give and take. You can’t pay someone to be your friend. You both have to want to be friends.
We can help facilitate friendships. We can do this by providing opportunities and encouragement. This gives people the opportunity to meet and come start the process of becoming friends. It is ineffective and usually doesn’t work to choose a friend for someone.
Although peer tutors are helpful in a school situation, unfortunately they don’t necessarily become friends then or later when school is finished. Teaching social skills isn’t the solution to developing friendships. A weekly or monthly friendship club or dance that also invites typical people may be fun but doesn’t necessarily develop friends either. Although disability awareness days or weeks might be educational in elementary grades, they aren’t the solution to developing friendships.
There are three activities that may help to develop friendships. The first one is as simple as looking for opportunities for people with autism to get together with other people. They should have the chance to get together and do things that that they enjoy. It could be a movie, or a club meeting around an interest, or a party.
The second activity involves how professionals talk about a person with autism to other people. The first thing out of our mouths shouldn’t be that they have autism. Describing behaviors in terms of the benefits of that behavior is useful to put a person with autism in a good light.
The third thing we can do is provide accommodations. It will be helpful for a direct support person (DSP) to participate in the activity alongside the person with autism. If the majority of participants are younger or older the DSP should be too. This is will make it easier for the person with autism to fit in. The DSP can also adapt the activity as they go along.
Finding and making friends is a delicate process. It is possible for people with autism to manage this process. Sometimes a little help is necessary. People with autism are as different as typical people. Some people with autism have many friends and really enjoy it. Other people autism have a limited set of friends they seem to enjoy them too.