A characteristic of autism often described is a possible impairment in social interaction. However, parents sometimes get confused about the importance of a child having social interaction with same age peers. As a school psychologist, I have seen many scenarios of how parents interpret social interaction as it relates to autism.
Parents often describe a child as having plenty of interaction with a brother or sister. However, this is limited because the sibling may overcompensate for the child he or she knows so well. The sibling many give the toy or item before the child even has to ask. In other cases, the sibling may give his or her food to a crying child without any type of social communication required. A sibling can also be aggressive taking the child’s toy and running away before the child with possible autism can even respond. A sibling may start talking and answering for the child which does not facilitate the social interaction of the child. If possible, parents should seek to provide a wide range of play experiences that extend beyond sibling play.
Older Children Interaction
Parents sometimes describe that a child only wants to play with older children. The issues arise for children with autism when the older child initiates more of the play experiences and social interaction. The older child may set up the ‘play school’ by organizing the materials, teaching the lesson, handing out the papers and giving social praise. However, the young child may only respond or not respond in the play experiences. The child with autism may not be provided enough play experiences and opportunities to initiate the social interaction.
I once heard a parent describe the social interaction for a child with autism and all of the interaction described was with adults. Sure, I have seen this many times with an only child who interacts with mom, dad and a grandparent. However, I have also heard of too much interaction with adult therapists. I heard one parent suggest that she did not want a preschool program for the child because the child would miss out on all of the therapy. A child with autism may be receiving individual therapy with an adult physical therapist, an adult occupational therapist, an adult speech therapist and an adult behavior therapist. The problem with this approach is that the child is only socially interacting and communicating with adults and missing out on the important social skills that can be learned from same age peers.
Ways to Increase Social Interaction with Peers
-Consider recreation center camps and classes that are age based where the child can learn new things and fun learning activities from peers who are close to his or her age.
-Let the child explore interactive lessons that are taught by adults, but where the child has practical experiences with peers. Swimming lessons or dance lessons provide a nice introduction for young children to learn a new skills and observe and interact with peers who are learning the same new skill.
-Club or social group interaction can provide many same age experiences for young children. Children attending various clubs can watch other children showing and demonstrating the use of objects. Other young children may bring an item to a young child with autism and wait for a response. A child may want to point out something in the room for another child to look at or respond to in the play or group area.
-Finally parents should not forget the importance of providing healthy social interaction experiences for young children with autism. Any social interaction opportunity that provides the child with autism time to improve communication with others and interaction in a social environment can be positive and rewarding for the child to learn new social skills.