An often described feature of autism is a possible impairment in social interaction. However, parents are sometimes confused about the importance of a child having social interaction with peers of the same age. As a school psychologist, I have seen many scenarios of how parents interpret social interaction in relation to autism.
Parents often describe a child as someone who interacts a lot with a brother or sister. However, this is limited because the brother may overcompensate for the boy she knows so well. The sibling can give the toy or item before the child has to ask for it. In other cases, the sibling may give his food to a crying child without any social communication required. A sibling may also be aggressive by taking the child’s toy and running away before the child with possible autism can even respond. A sibling may start to speak and answer for the child, which does not facilitate the child’s social interaction. If possible, parents should look to provide a wide range of play experiences that extend beyond sibling play.
Interaction with older children
Parents sometimes describe a child as just wanting to play with older children. Problems arise for children with autism when the older child initiates more play experiences and social interaction. The older child can establish ‘play school’ by arranging the materials, teaching the lesson, distributing the papers and giving social praise. However, the young child can only respond or not respond to play experiences. The child with autism may not be provided with enough play experiences and opportunities to initiate social interaction.
Interaction with adults
I once heard a parent describe the social interaction of a child with autism, and all of the interaction described was with adults. Sure, I’ve seen this many times with an only child interacting with mom, dad, and a grandparent. However, I have also heard of too much interaction with adult therapists. I heard a parent suggest that he did not want a preschool program for the child because the child would miss all therapy. A child with autism may receive individual therapy with an adult physical therapist, adult occupational therapist, adult speech therapist, and adult behavior therapist. The problem with this approach is that the child only interacts socially and communicates with adults and misses out on important social skills that can be learned from peers of the same age.
Ways to increase social interaction with peers
-Consider camps at recreation centers and age-based classes where the child can learn new things and fun learning activities from peers who are close in age.
-Let the child explore interactive lessons that are taught by adults, but where the child has hands-on experiences with peers. Swimming or dance lessons provide a good introduction for young children to learn new skills and to observe and interact with peers who are learning the same new skill.
-Interaction in a club or social group can provide many same-age experiences for young children. Children who attend various clubs may see other children showing and demonstrating the use of objects. Other young children may bring an item to a young child with autism and expect a response. A child may want to point to 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 to young children with autism. Any opportunity for social interaction that provides the child with autism time to improve communication with others and interaction in a social setting can be positive and rewarding for the child to learn new social skills.