Making and Keeping Friends

November 13, 2015

in Ask Dr Lisa, Autism Challenges


“Dr. Lisa, My son has ADHD and is very impulsive. He is the “class clown” and does not have many friends. He tends to be picked on and he reacts negatively toward this. It seems his feelings get hurt and he lashes back at the other child. He struggles socially. How can I help him make and keep friends? ” ~ Amy  NY

Making and keeping friends is a tough social skill for many children, especially children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, ADHD and SPD. Many kids like ours try get the attention of their peers, but simply go about this task in a negative way that pushes peers away. This is not done with intention, but with confusion and a lack of an ability to communicate and socially interact in ways that are acceptable in society.

I know this can be down right heart breaking.

Your child is loving and has pure kind intentions of making a friend, but another child may misunderstand the WAY your child is going about making friends. What starts out as kindness can quickly turn to hurt and anger leading your child to think other children do not want to be friends.

Kids like ours also tend to be known to disrupt the class by calling out, making noises, tapping on the desk or even pretending to fall off chairs (not underestimating that many fall off chairs not on purpose too)! Some kids make themselves laugh so hard they roll around on the floor. Although the other kids may laugh, they may actually be laughing AT your child, not with him. This can be ever so confusing to a child simply trying to fit in.

As a child gets older, other children become more aware of odd comments, disruptive behaviors and odd attempts at conversation. This can “mark” a child as an outcast or weirdo because he is not conforming to socially accepted behavior.  A child that does not know how to start or hold a conversation or talks excessively about a topic that his peers find uninteresting or babyish also can outcast the child.

There is no doubt, making and keeping friends is a social skill and difficult challenge for kids with ASD, ADHD and SPD. I wrote an entire book on how I helped my son, so I know how hard this all can be.

Try the following tips that have helped me foster self-confidence and assurance within my son as well as, social and communication skills needed to make and keep friends when the time presented itself (all in his time).

Do Not Rush Making Friends 

Did you notice in the above paragraph I said “when the time presented itself (all in his time)”?

You see, I spent many years worrying and being upset that my son really had no friends to play with. The mothers at our school did a wonderful job making sure my son did not sit by their child in classes, get invited to birthday parties or call us to have a play date. At first I was not sure if it was due to a lack of skills my son had, a misunderstanding or adults who simply did not understand what Autism Spectrum was. I soon was informed by a mom who decided she liked me that the moms were purposely making sure their children did not come in contact with my son. In fact, an entire class petitioned to have my son removed without my knowing until years later as the principal did not entertain them.

My point to you is this…

During the years that parents are in control of play dates and who can and cannot play with their child, it can be almost impossible to make friends with typical kids. I did not realize this until years later, but kids without disabilities (especially the boys who are great at sports and are popular) may have moms that do not want their children with yours. And simply put, you do not want your kids playing with kids who come from families who think like this.

The amazing part of growing up is these kids with ignorant moms will eventually not want mommy picking their friends. In fact, many of these kids may want to be your child’s friend when the older school years come where kids meet up at the movies, mall or park and mommy can’t control friendships.

Which leads me to tip number two…

Improve Conversation Skills

During the younger years when mommies control play dates, teach your child how to greet others, start and maintain conversations and politely join conversations. Practice scenarios and role play together, pretending to be kids with answers that are confusing and hurtful. Switch roles allowing your child to be his peers too. It also is very important to teach your child how to read non-verbal cues of others such as body language.

This is a tough for kids like ours.

Trying to take cues that a friend is bored with eye rolling or upset by body position is not easy. Work on body cues that would indicate that a friend is interested and wanting to talk or is bored and wishes the conversation would change. Again, role play and practice real life scenarios with you and your child switching roles. Once your child starts getting the idea of this, try having another family member or very close friend role play too. The more people your child can can become comfortable reading social cues from, the better he will master these skills.

Go to a park one day, get an ice cream and just sit on the sidelines playing a game where you read people’s body language and try to interpret what is going on. Do this in a restaurant when you are waiting for your food or on line at a store. My son and I had fun doing this!

We stopped worrying about all the people that did not want to play with our son (since worrying was not going to change their minds), and instead focused on teaching him the skills to socially interact when the time was right.

That brings me to tip number three…

Teach and Master Unwritten Social Rules

Known Your Personal Space

There also are unwritten social rules that may be very confusing for your child. Many kids on the Spectrum struggle with personal space. Some can get right in a friend’s personal space or face eagerly wanting to befriend them. This can be a very uncomfortable for the other child. Some kids are the opposite where they are the ones who cannot have another person too close to them. Sounds and smells can be irritating or they many grow anxious the other person may touch them.

I recall my son dreaded the hug, kiss or pat on the head from a relative. This kind gesture would trigger anxiety and  sensory meltdowns for my son, so think how having a friend at school too close or too loud can create social avoidance too. For some, being alone and in control is safer and easier than being with the crowd.

No matter what child you have regarding personal space, work on it together. If your child is in other children’s personal space, teach the boundary. Explain there is a invisible line we don’t cross and why. Again , role play and practice this. Also, help the child who avoids touch and loud friends and crowds ways to overcome this fear. If it is truly sensory related (which many are), make sure your child is seeing an occupational therapist, chiropractor and nutritionist for optimal self-regulation of the nervous system.

Try regulating the nervous system before a play date or take sensory breaks at school. Many issues are in the crowds, so if your child needs a sensory break during the classroom, lunch room or gym, put them into his day so he can step out of the chaos and go to a safe place to get his nervous system regulated again. Have sensory strategies ready at the place he goes to such as fidget toys, a sand table, bean bag chairs, hop-pity hops, etc..

No Need to be The Rule Police

Some children like to be the rule police, making sure their peers are all following the rules. This can be tough for your child to let go of because in his mind, he is simply following and enforcing the very rules taught and expected of him. There is no intention of being mean here, he is simply seeing this as black and white. However, it can be super annoying to his peers where they may try to avoid him. No child wants to be policed by a friend.

Work on this together by explaining to your child there is a time and place he can be worried about others not following rules and he can even enforce them. Give him that time at home and be very specific when it begins and ends. Pick scenarios where it benefits you that he makes sure everyone is being safe. Play police games. Play games with rules, but also teach what bending the rules mean and role play situations like that. Most of all, teach your child that school is not for children to be enforcing rules and that is the job of the principal and teachers. Clearly define his role and make sure you talk about the difference between telling the teachers about a real issue versus tattling, because no one like a tattler.

Understand Tattling versus Telling

Tattling can be one of those actions that makes your child lose friends quickly. Tattling is very different from going to a teacher to share very important or serious information. Many parents today forget to role play this with their kids which unfortunately can lead to serious false accusations. I must say having three boys, this was a very frustrating area for me. Many of the girls in our school seemed to endlessly tattle on the boys with things that were either entirely wrong, misunderstood or exaggerated. The problem was that the boys usually got in trouble despite the fact the boy moms would find out what happened and report back the actual truth, but at that point it was usually too late. This ongoing nonsense can cause friendship problems as well as anger for a boy who keeps getting in trouble for really nothing.

If your child is the one tattling, you really have to teach the difference between what information should and should not be directed to a teacher. You also must teach your child the difference between a lie, misunderstanding and exaggeration, because false accusations are never a good thing and can lead the tattler getting into deep trouble in years to come. Role play all the different scenarios and when a situation arises, use that situation as a teachable moment.

If your child is constantly being tattled on, address this issue with your child’s teacher and principal. The only way tattling can stop is if the tattler is held accountable and then taught the difference between telling and tattling. Usually when telling an adult something serious such as a friend is being bullied, it involves a history of events that one child is doing to another. This area today can be very confusing for children, so it has never been more important to discuss, role play and talk about current life situations regarding bullying, telling the truth, and falsely accusing others which  can be ongoing tattling that has not been properly addressed by adults.

Interpreting Sarcasm and Tone of Voice

My son struggled with fully understanding when someone was being sarcastic or being real. He also would get very upset with certain tones of voice, thinking he was about to get in trouble. Sarcasm he just started to understand a few years ago, and it was one area that caused problems with sarcastic peers and adults. I even caught myself using idioms and sarcasm without knowing they triggered his anger.

Sarcasm and certain tones sound condescending and can make your child feel that you or the person speaking is upset with him. His immediate reaction will most likely be defensive and anger since he does not understand what sarcasm is. For example, a friend may say something like “You know what is ugly? Your butt.” Boys talk like that all the time, yet how in the world is a child struggling with sarcasm going to process that? Not knowing what that even means can upset a child like ours.  A teacher may say, “You guys better do well on this test or I will lock you all in the room where you will stay until you get it right.” Now, we know this is not true, but a child may be thinking he will literally be locked in the room all night if they do not do well on the test.

Idioms are even harder and I did’t realize this until my son got upset after I used one.  I heard him and his brother wrestling around and I told them to “Knock it off.” My son immediately got mad and replied, “Knock what off?” I replied, “Don’t talk back, just knock it off.” He continued to yell at me, starting the whole meltdown process with “WHAT DO YOU WANT ME TO KNOCK OFF?”  Annoyed I replied, “I want you to stop wrestling with your brother. Someone is going to get hurt.” My son now was stuck in this rigid loop of asking me “WHAT do I want him to knock off.” which drove me nuts.  It took me awhile to understand he didn’t get the term I had used. He wanted to know what item did I want him to knock off and from where- such as do I knock off the book from the table?

Yikes. I used idioms all the time, but I found a great solution: CARTOONS.

Cartoons are the best way to teach sarcasm and idioms. They are used over and over. Once I realized he did not understand them and they triggered his anger, we watched cartoons together, discussing the one-liners. It took me writing them down, talking about one or two thorough the week and re-watching the same cartoon for him to grasp them. I can tell you it is great to watch your child laugh at that very precious moment he gets it. Even better is the moment he understand a friend’s sarcasm and can join in.

Which brings me to my last tip…

Choose the Right Friends in the Right Places

My last big tip for you is to choose friends that are most like your child. This means also to stop trying to make friendships work that for right now, are not going to. The best friendships for your child are with kids much like him. This was another strategy that once I figured out, our life became so much happier. Once I surrounded my family with families just like ours (yes, moms who have kids with ASD, ADHD and SPD), my family life became easier and happier, removing so many of the sad moments of feeling let down, excluded and alone.

You see, I was surrounding myself with typical moms that have typical kids, therefore, I felt alone and we didn’t belong. It was not that those moms are unkind people, they just weren’t our type. I found that when I surrounded my family with moms with kids like mine, we got each other and fully supported one another. My son felt loved and more secure about himself having a friend that understood him too.

And to be totally honest here, I realized that families like ours don’t have time for competition, jealously, or anger. In fact, families like ours are humbled as our expectations are not for our kids to be number one at a sport or academics. Although we know our children are amazing and bright, we simply want them to learn how to overcome challenges so they can be happy hardworking and loving adults. There is no ego with these families like ours- it’s all heart!

Go where families like yours are! You are welcome to join my private Health & Thrive group where hundreds of families with children just like ours share tips, stories and unconditional love- and I am there daily to help too!

Try Autism Spectrum Disorder support groups in your area. Many offer parent and family activities. Look for kids who have similar interests such as video gaming, Pokeman cards, fantasy playing, and movies (Star Wars /Harry Potter fans). Also join community activities such as boy and girl scouts, YMCA, karate, art and music lessons and dance classes. Look into the clubs at your child’s school. My older sons found friends in math, physics, robotic, chess and go green clubs. Try the theater or band at your child’s school.

When you do start meeting some friends, think about having a play date with just one friend at a time at your house, structuring activities for them at first to help them start a friendship. Also, keep play dates short trying to have the children leave on a good note. Make sure you have worked on the skills mentioned above before friends are invited over. Role play what your child needs help with this way he is most comfortable. If you need more tips read my article 5 Tips to Help Your Child Make Friends.

Remember, the best strategy to have is to not rush this. Instead, use teachable moments for your child to learn how to make and keep friends so when the time is right (all in his time), he will be secure and ready to shine!


Photo is by Dollar Photo Club

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