Social interactions can be terrifying to many, especially children with autism. The skills required to start and hold a conversation are skills we pick up from observing others and then trying them out ourselves. While it is the same for children with autism, they take a longer time to develop social skills as compared to neurotypicals. Due to social impairments, it has been observed that children with autism, who do not receive many opportunities in interacting with others, face isolation and loneliness (Bauminger, Shulman, & Agam, 2003). As they fall behind peers in social development, they may face issues in school or work performance and develop psychological problems like depression and anxiety (Howlin, Mawhood, & Rutter, 2000; Shtayermman, 2007).
However, if they are taught and exposed to social interactions earlier, there will be more time for them to develop and practise social skills. Consequently, when they improve their social functioning skills, it can help decrease the risk of developing cognitive and emotional issues and increase their academic functioning and likelihood of developing meaningful friendships with others (Adreon & Durocher, 2007; White & Roberson-Nay, 2009). Real-life interactions with people in their immediate surroundings can pose many benefits for children with autism – be it through interpersonal or intrapersonal skills.
Let us look at the 4 ways real-life interactions can help children with autism:
1) Boost Self-Confidence and Self-Esteem
We know the saying, ‘practice makes perfect’. The more times children with autism interact with others, the more times they can practice their social skills. Through real-life interactions, especially with peers or family members in their immediate environment, they are free to make mistakes or see what works or does not work through trial and error. As they practice their skills and have conversations where they can give or receive feedback from many individuals, it allows them to learn to predict what is going to happen or be said by individuals in a conversation. Being more comfortable conversing with others can boost their confidence and self-esteem, which can result in them taking the initiative to start conversations and become more independent.
2) Make friends
Making friends can be difficult and nerve-wrecking, even for working adults who are expected to be able to communicate with others on a regular basis. For children with autism, opportunities like playing games, sharing toys, or working on a project with their peers encourage both verbal and non-verbal interactions. We can focus on how play can facilitate developing relationships between children. Through parallel play (playing side by side with interactions but not towards a shared goal) and collaborative play (playing together towards a shared goal), children with autism can get to know their peers’ interests, likes, and dislikes. The more people they interact with, the wider the variety of responses they get, helping them to develop greater understanding with regard to social behaviours and building friendships.
3) Develop Cognitive and Language Skills
While making friends is a necessity for anyone, especially if one were to pursue a career that required high-levels of interaction with others and the establishing of bonds with clients, not everyone has the cognitive and language skills required to maintain such relationships. On a day-to-day basis, at any given time, children with autism may face conflicts (i.e. watching their peers fight or being directly involved in a dispute) or tough decisions in social situations (i.e. sharing toys, saying yes or no). Through these interactions, whether positive or negative, they develop cognitive skills, such as observing, inferring, and problem-solving. In addition, they can also develop language skills when they speak to their peers, teachers, and relatives. As they interact with individuals of various age groups with varying levels of language skills, they can gain more experience and better understand with time and practise.
4) Improve Focus and Attention
Apart from general cognitive and language skills, children with autism will also get to work on their attention skills – required every day, everywhere we go. When interacting with others, children with autism get the opportunity to exercise making eye contact – a skill that requires much focus and attention for some of them. Eye contact is not limited to just interactions with people, but also to objects. There are several types of attention, but joint or shared attention (share focus or looking at an object that others are looking at) requires simple eye contact. When teachers point at objects or places to look at during activities, the child can practise following the teacher’s finger, working on their attention. As they train making eye contact in many different social situations, they can move on and enhance other types of attention, especially sustained attention that requires them to focus on people, objects or tasks for a long period of time.
All in all, the more social interactions children with autism have with others, the better their chances of social development. Although they may require much assistance for the first few interactions, both them and their peers, it will provide an opportunity allowing both parties to improve their social skills. Furthermore, the outcomes are better as compared to children who did not have as much interaction (Bauminger, Shulman, & Agam, 2003). We can understand how concerned and anxious parents might get when they fret over their child not being able to talk to others, getting negative feedback from others, or worse, being bullied. However, if they do not get exposed to a variety of responses, they will not be able to experience and learn what is right or wrong; what works or does not work when conversing with others.
With that, I implore parents of children with autism to let their little ones explore more freely so that they can learn from the opportunities to talk to other children in less controlled social situations.
Written by Alisha.
Adreon, D., & Durocher, J. S. (2007). Evaluating the college transition needs of individuals with high-functioning autism spectrum disorders. Intervention in School and Clinic, 42(5), 271-279. doi: 10.1177/10534512070420050201
Bauminger, N., Shulman, C., & Agam, G. (2003). Peer interaction and loneliness in high-functioning children with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 33(5), 489–508. doi: 10.1023/A:1025827427901
Howlin, P., Mawhood, L., & Rutter, M. (2000). Autism and developmental receptive language disorder—A follow-up comparison in early adult life. II: Social, behavioural, and psychiatric outcomes. The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 41(5), 561-578. doi: 10.1111/1469-7610.00643
Shtayermman, O. (2007). Peer victimization in adolescents and young adults diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome: A link to depressive symptomatology, anxiety symptomatology and suicidal ideation. Issues in Comprehensive Pediatric Nursing, 30(3), 87-107. doi: 10.1080/01460860701525089
White, S. W., & Roberson-Nay, R. (2009). Anxiety, social deficits, and loneliness in youth with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 39(7), 1006-1013. doi: 10.1007/s10803-009-0713-8