One of the biggest hurdles for children with autism is developing meaningful relationships as they have difficulties in social engagements and the acquisition of communicative skills. For some children, acquiring language skills in itself is a challenge, not to mention understanding how to express themselves appropriately. Hence, it will be even more difficult to use these skills to develop friendships. Children with autism also have problems reading non-verbal communication cues such as body language, tone of voice, gestures and facial expressions. The lack of communication and social skills is thus, known as one of the primary symptoms of children with autism. As a result, they have a hard time establishing friendships and relationships, even though one child’s condition can vary very much from another, from high functioning to low functioning. Even though the level of skills for each individual differs widely, they all need the social aspect to develop and grow.
As much as a typical child needs to learn from socializing, it is no different for children with autism. Social communication and the establishment of meaningful friendships or relationships are very important aspects in the developmental process of integrating into mainstream society. Let us take a look at how friendships can positively impact children with autism.
Firstly, meaningful friendships can provide help and support to the mental well-being of children with autism. When it comes to their mental health, there are medical and psychiatric comorbidities that exist, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression, anxiety disorders, and obsessive compulsive disorders (OCD). The prevalence of these conditions are consistently elevated in people with autism. In the most recent studies conducted by Lancet Psychiatry in 2019, other than ADHD being the most common comorbid condition in people with autism, affecting 28% of them, the next common condition is anxiety disorder, which affects about 20% of them. In addition, high functioning children with autism are highly susceptible to low self-esteem issues as they are more aware of the lack of social skills that comes with the disorder. These mental health conditions can be improved or be prevented with the help of a strong support system. Other than the family’s support and guidance, the development of friendships is a valuable source of support where it can help positively impact the mental well-being of children with autism.
The feeling of acceptance from peers, an ability to understand the behavioural aspects and unique interests can promote greater self confidence, less anxiety, loneliness and depression. Research done by Israel Binational Science Foundation (BSF) in 2008 proved that even though it is significantly harder for children with autism to make friends, having just one friend can help reduce negative mental conditions. Social communication is an aspect that they need help with, but that does not mean they do not feel appreciative and love for their friends or loved ones. They may simply express love and care differently from a typical child. For instance, they may express through touch, gestures, or even just by enjoying the company and spending time with friends.
Also, children with autism are easy targets for bullying, especially in school settings. Having friends who are able to understand and stand up for them is going to help them with managing their emotions rationally and learn to respond appropriately to unpleasant situations.
Secondly, friendships can also help children with autism gain not only a positive mental headspace, but also life skills and interpersonal values that will help with their life experiences in the future, especially in being independent as an individual with autism. For example, developing better communication skills and social skills; such as taking turns, sharing, reciprocating; and values, such as responsibility, kindness, patience, appreciation, forgiveness, and etcetera. These skills and values gained through friendships are also essential for day-to-day living and social interaction. Hence, it is helpful to start practicing developing friendships at a young age. It will definitely affect and shape the characteristics of the individual in the future. Especially because children with autism may need more time and practice to develop well in this aspect, encouraging friendships early is a good start to acquiring the necessary skills and values.
Lastly, children with autism can benefit better if friendships or relationships are stable and consistent. Similar to typical children, growth is much more prominent when there is a strong and supportive ecosystem. Moreover, children with autism find it especially difficult to develop new friendships or relationships. Hence, having stable relationships is essential to build positive growth. In addition, dealing with unexpected changes can cause unnecessary anxiety and meltdowns from them too. For example, getting them to meet a group of new friends out of the sudden or when a parent suddenly goes abroad without preempting the child. These unexpected situations can easily spike their anxiety levels and thus, trigger meltdowns. Development and growth would be maximised when children with autism - or even any typical child, can progress with safe, stable and strong relationships with people.
In conclusion, friendships are as important to children with autism as it is for typical children. Children with autism need the extra support and guidance to walk through life stages, and thus, a well-rounded support system is essential to provide the necessary steps to grow.
I would like to end with one of my favourite quotes: “Just like a box of matchsticks, we are only as strong as we are united, and weak as we are divided."
Written by Mabel
Burchi, E., & Hollander, E. (2019). Anxiety in Autism Spectrum Disorder. Retrieved from https://adaa.org/learn-from-us/from-the-experts/blog-posts/consumer/anxiety-autism-spectrum-disorder
Erdmann, J. (2019). Analysis pins down prevalence of mental health conditions in autism. (2019, October 4). Retrieved from https://www.spectrumnews.org/news/analysis-pins-down-prevalence-of-mental-health-conditions-in-autism/
Mazurek, M.O. & Kanne, S. (2010). Friendship and internalizing symptoms among children and adolescents with ASD. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 40(12): 1512-1520.