Autism is so prevalent these days -- the latest CDC estimate is that about 1 in 88 children has an autism spectrum disorder -- that almost everyone knows of a child with this diagnosis.
If you interact with more than one of these special kids, you will notice that children with ASD can have very different strengths and challenges. In fact, ASD presents itself in a staggering variety of ways -- from very verbal kids with vast amounts of specialized knowledge to nonverbal children who may use assistive technology to communicate.
Though it can be tough to know where to start, there are many ways to help kids with ASD in your community, and to help your child be friends with a classmate or neighbor on the autism spectrum. Rest assured that reaching out is the right thing to do; friendships with typically developing children can be invaluable to kids with ASD -- and typical kids will learn from the friendship, too.
- Think inclusion. Children with autism are, first and foremost, children. “It’s more natural to include them from the start,” says Ann Cole, Community Relations Director of Upstate New York Families for Effective Autism Treatment and the mother of two teenagers with ASD. It’s possible for kids on the spectrum to form very real friendships with their peers. You may be surprised at how much common ground your child shares with her classmate; they may both love Legos, science, video games or movies. Often children with autism want desperately to play with other kids, but may not be able to articulate this desire.
- Ask the child’s parents for information. Don’t feel awkward about this; the parents will probably be grateful that you asked. Because each child with ASD is so unique, going straight to the source for information is a great idea -- what does their child like to do? How could your kids include him in their play? Are there certain things that upset the child? (If you are concerned about behavior issues, this is where you will find out.) To help a child with autism fit into a group of typical kids, “Be a detective,” says Cole. “Figure out what strengths that child has, and try building an activity around that.”
- Be patient. Depending on the child, he or she may have compre- hension problems, may need to be reminded to take turns or might need extra help when trying a new activity. Many kids with autism have “sensory issues” that make everyday sounds, sights and experiences unpleasant or even painful. ASD kids may also have trouble reading facial expressions, body language or the emotions of others.
- Push for autism awareness training in schools. With more kids receiving this diagnosis, it behooves everyone to learn what they can. Often, Cole says, kids seem to enjoy disability awareness training, “and there’s not a school that couldn’t use it.” Contact your local autism organization, who should be able to assist you.
For more information
Autism Speaks’ tips on being a friend to someone with autism: http://tinyurl.com/bugc34f
University of Louisville Kentucky Autism Training Center’s autism resource guide: http://tinyurl.com/ dygsoer