Help Your Neurodiverse Child Form Lasting Friendships

Children forming a close friendship

We are featured in Twinkl’s Friendship blog, which aims to give tips towards improving relationship-building across children with special education needs and disabilities. Feel free to look at the other inclusive resources available on their site. 

Parents who are concerned with their neurodiverse child’s ability to make friends should take comfort in knowing there are many ways you can help them form lasting friendships. Friendships are vital to children’s and teens’ social skill development as well as their quality of life. They improve children’s self-esteem and emotional resilience. Unfortunately, it can be more difficult for neurodiverse children to form these close friendships. In this post, we’ve included our best suggestions for helping your child form friendships.

If your child participates in occupational therapy, speech therapy, physical therapy, or mental health counseling, these professionals are often aware of local resources and social groups for families and neurodiverse young people. School officials can also help students find groups or extracurricular activities that would be a good fit for them. Attending school and sporting events (even if your child isn’t directly participating), visiting local playgrounds, becoming involved in a church, and signing up for groups (like a sports team, scouts, or a Mommy and Me class) are all great ways to meet potential friends. The more time your child spends interacting with others, the more opportunities he or she will have to practice their social skills and meet other children with whom to form friendships.

Parents of children who struggle with social skills are able to make a significant difference by role-playing and explicitly teaching appropriate body language and conversation skills. By teaching these foundational skills, parents give their children the best chance of success in our very social world.

  • Learning about the personal space needs of others is an invaluable skill that will benefit your child throughout their life. I like to use a hula hoop to demonstrate the concept of personal “bubbles”. 
  • If your child tends to be overly affectionate, try teaching them to replace hugs and other touching with a high five or fist pound.
  • Practice sharing toys and taking turns with your child as well as sportsmanlike conduct when winning or losing games. Children tend to have a hard time accepting or overlooking these behaviors when interacting with their peers.
  • Demonstrate and practice eye contact and smiling at others until your child feels comfortable with it. Some children struggle making or maintaining eye contact, so I suggest they begin with very brief eye contact and work their way up to the longer eye contact that occurs during conversations. Regular practice with loved ones before trying with strangers can make this process less intimidating. Staring contests turn eye contact practice into a fun game. On the other hand, parents may need to teach their children to occasionally glance away, breaking eye contact during conversation so it does not become too intense for the other person.
  • When your child is comfortable with eye contact and smiling, it is time to practice friendly greetings. These can be as simple as saying, “Hi,” when passing another child in the hall. It is often better to start with these short, basic greetings before moving on to initiating full conversations.
  • Teaching your child appropriate conversation starters helps them to initiate relationships with other children they are interested in getting to know better. These can be said verbally or via a speech-producing device. Practice several until your child memorizes them and can use them whenever the opportunity presents itself. Conversation starters include:
      • Hi, my name is ____. What’s your name?
      • How’s your day going?
      • I like your ____ (insert an object, item of clothing, or piece of classwork).
      • I really enjoy when we ____ (insert classroom activity). Do you like it?
      • Would you like to ____ (insert fun activity) with me?
  • Plan play dates that will facilitate success for your child. This often includes inviting only one or two children at a time (any more can be overwhelming) and setting up interactive activities your child and their peers enjoy and are able to do without excessive adult assistance. If your child struggles with losing at games, include only non-competitive activities. Consider putting away your child’s favorite toys if they have difficulty sharing. 
  • If you’re not sure who to invite to playdates, classroom teachers can often help with identifying classmates who will be receptive. You can then reach out to the parents of these children via a note sent home with their child from school or phone. 
  • Online groups for local parents are useful to find families who would also like to organize playdates for their children.

Children who are learning social skills and making friends will inevitably experience rejection at one time or another. It’s important, as their parent, that you are ready and available to support them when this happens. Remind them of all the qualities that make them great and how lucky anyone would be to call them a friend. Encourage them to continue practicing their skills and meeting new people. It may take longer than they would like, but your child WILL find others who share their interests and enjoy spending time with them.

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