5 Ways to Help Your Autistic Teen Foster Friendships

We all want our children to lead healthy and fulfilling lives on their own terms.  As many of us have incidentally learned, one of the most essential parts of adulthood is balancing day-to-day responsibilities with social interaction.  Although jobs and chores are important, we find emotional fulfillment from time spent among people we trust, respect, and love.  Social interaction brings us a sense of belonging and security even in uncertain times.

During kids’ teen years, we can play a role as facilitators of frequent, meaningful social interaction.  Learn how to help your autistic teen thrive with these 5 tips:

Practice healthy communication.

Parents can help children with autism practice social interactions through social stories that model emotions and behaviors.  Parents can write out short scripts with their children and explore new situations: Do we have things in common with other teens?  How does it feel to like the same things?  What are some questions we can ask to get to know people better?  Parents can help children prepare their answers for specific questions other teens may ask.  Through social stories, we can help place our teen in their peers’ shoes and teach communication skills.  The better our teen can express themselves, the easier it will be for them to make authentic, loving friendships.

Find activities that your child enjoys.

Once we’ve made a new friend, what are some things we can do together?  Parents can help their teens articulate their preferences for certain activities.  For example: maybe we could play our favorite card game together, go for a walk in the park, or eat together at a restaurant we both like.  Use social stories to navigate these activities with your teen.  When will we play cards together?  How will we get to the park?  What should we talk about with our friends during the activity?  How will we know when to stop playing?  Create opportunities for your child to have fun and use their imagination.

Plan social gatherings.

Help your teen plan group activities that are age-appropriate and enjoyable.  Get your teen involved in clubs, sports, or organizations that play to their personal strengths and build their confidence.  Through repeated exposure to the same group of peers, your child may feel more comfortable reaching out for deeper friendships.  Also, don’t underestimate the power of friendship between parents!  Get to know the other adults at your teen’s sporting events or club meetings.  Reach out to plan get-togethers beyond the usual practice or rehearsal.  The more at ease you feel around other parents, the more you can establish personal resources to support your teen and yourself.

Maintain social connections.

Friendships don’t just happen: they require a lot of work!  Parents can teach their children how to invest time and emotion into healthy, reciprocal friendships.  Get your teen connected to their friends over the phone or a safe messenger application.  Frequent informal conversations can help your child practice more nuanced social dynamics in the real world.  Set up regular times to meet with friends and show emotional support; for example, attending a friend’s baseball game and cheering them on, or celebrating special occasions like holidays or birthdays.

Reach out to both special-needs and neurotypical peers.

As long as your teen feels comfortable, parents can help them make new friends in both special-needs and neurotypical spaces.  Teach your child how to recognize which people in their life make good friends and are open to developing an emotional bond.  Get to know other teens in your neighborhood, your school, your religious community, etc.  Reach out to therapy providers and find organizations for teens with autism and their families.  Connect with other parents on social media (i.e. Facebook groups) and learn more about what social opportunities exist in your local area.  

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