Did you know that 1 in 59 children in the United States has autism? Which means that your kid probably has at least one classmate in his or her grade who is on the spectrum. That’s why we tapped Tara Martello, pediatric occupational therapist and founder of children’s therapy clinic Grow Thru Play, for her expert advice about teaching your child how to form better friendships with classmates with autism (and any child that is struggling with developmental issues). Doing so won’t just benefit the kid who’s on the spectrum, but it also has some pretty cool consequences for your mini, such as teaching her valuable skills like tolerance, empathy and compassion. Here are a few ideas to get you started.
Cultivate your child’s curiosity. Let’s say that your kid encounters a child exhibiting one of the repetitive behaviors common with autism (like hand flapping, toe walking and hopping in place when excited) and asks why they’re doing that. Instead of dismissing the question, take some time to address it in a thoughtful way that encourages dialogue. How? Try explaining that everyone has different ways of calming their bodies or showing excitement, suggests Martello. “And use examples from your experience such as, ‘I like to take five deep breaths to calm my body or feel better, so maybe that’s what they’re doing?’”
Discuss how everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. Talk about your own and have your child think about theirs, says Martello. “These conversations build good self-awareness and also help children become more cognizant of those around them including children who may appear or interact with the world differently.”
Engage with these children and parents. You already know that your kid watches what you do closely (remember that time he picked up on your use of the F-word?), and that includes how you react to situations and people. So, if you’re at the schoolyard and you see a parent having a hard time with their child during a meltdown, keep in mind that what you say about that situation, your body language and how you interact with that parent and child is all being closely observed. “Parents who have children with any kind of disability or delay have a much harder time not only with the increased demands of their child, but with judgments from others about what they are doing with their child,” says Martello. Practice patience and kindness and your kid will do the same.