Last week’s blog briefly touched upon the exceptional friendship we noticed between our student Srutesh and Shane. On hearing that his friend Shane wasn’t keeping well Srutesh offered to help out with Shane’s pop - up shop, a week later even after Shane was well and able, Srutesh still volunteered to accompany him and be his sales ninja! As you know, the results were outstanding just like the friendship.
Many people seem to think that autistic individuals prefer to spend all of their time alone and do not have the need for friendship’s or socialization. Visit The Owl House however and you will find that, much of what we think we know about friendship and special needs is either not true or sadly misunderstood. In this week’s post we will try to cover the importance and benefits of friendships for people with special needs.
Don't walk behind me; I may not lead. Don't walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend
There is not one sole reason why people feel the need to socialize with others around them. Multiple basic human needs to connect and bond with peers/coworkers/neighbours are fulfilled when we make an effort to socialize. What is very important to keep in mind is that not all friendships are alike. Research has found that for people with autism - definitions of friendships tend to differ but most certainly not the need for them!
A lot of people with and without special needs have access to Social Media but let’s not confuse that with natural personal connections we build when meeting in person.
Speaking of people with special needs, opportunities for natural friendships are often limited. Let's take a look into why it is important for people with special needs to develop, maintain and continue these organic friendships.
1) Communication - The very basic of starting a conversation with anyone is learning the opening dialogues for example: hi, how are you? How was your day? What have you been up to lately? Parent and child or educator and the individual can work on these basic conversational skills.
2) Social Interaction - People with special needs pick up on things, actions and words more often than what they are given credit for. Interacting with peers like any typical child makes room for building vocabulary and exchanging ideas.
3) Self Esteem - Interacting with peers of the same age can build self-esteem and confidence through communication i.e. verbal and non-verbal.
4) Learning social etiquette and boundaries - When in social situations, individuals pick up on cues that are appropriate for social interaction. Imitation can play a major role in building these social etiquettes and open up a dialogue with peers.
5) Independence - Having learnt words or phrases and socially appropriate behavior can lead to independence. Self reliance should always be the goal when it comes to teaching any individual. Once an individual is comfortable and knows how to initiate conversations with small talk, independence in social interaction can be very easily attained.
6) Empathy - Socializing and bonding with peers will always encourage individuals to think from a different perspective and eventually be able to empathize.
7) Teamwork - Working together in a group setting with a common goal can initiate conversations amongst peers.
Did you know?
As humans, we all connect with our surroundings and other people around us.
Interacting or socializing with the people around us releases oxytocin i.e. a chemical in your body that enhances the feeling of love, social bonding and trust. It also in turn lowers your stress (i.e. cortisol levels). So not just from a general point of view but also a medical standpoint, socializing and bonding with people is overall helpful for our mental, physical and emotional well-being.
Where do we start?
The best place and way to start learning how to make friends is at home i.e. a safe and comfortable environment for the individual. Caregivers/parents can work on different aspects of socializing with their children. Here are a few ways you can encourage and support the learning:
1. Start off by practising basic conversations at home for example: greetings, easy follow up questions, talking about favorite things, active listening etc.
2. Having social situation exposure in a safe and supervised environment based on the individual’s level of comfort. For example: family events, neighborhood get together, video calls with relatives work as well.
3. Gradually decreasing your level of support when interacting for example: if in the beginning parent/caregiver had to say the entire phrase for the individual to repeat back could then turn into the parent/caregiver just having to say “hi” and let the individual continue the rest of the dialogue.
As I may have mentioned in my other blogs before, the learning does not stop when you actively finish your “socializing session” (in this case). These skills can be and should be practised throughout the day until it becomes second nature.
Today’s take away
One of the main concerns for parents/ caregivers and educators is the safety of the individuals they support when thinking of various social situations. Nevertheless, there are programs and/or events around the world for people with special needs to bond and socialize with peers their age in a casual setting. These programs are hosted by different organizations and community centres with professionally trained staff and parents (who offer to volunteer at the event) to facilitate social conversations when needed for individuals with special needs.
We, at The Owl House definitely believe in following a path where every individual has an opportunity to socialize in an age appropriate and interest based setting. There are multiple ways to host small/big gathering for people with special needs to come together and participate in activities. Some things we offer at The Owl House for individuals with special needs are as following:
Music group - Hosting a music club once a week for individuals with common interest can bond over music.
Book reading club - Having to read books or having it read to you in a group setting with other individuals with special needs.
Cooking class - Making delicious recipes with an educator and individuals with curiosity to experiment with food can be a great group social interaction. Doesn’t food bring everyone together, any way?
Pottery class - Making handicrafts from scratch using clay and fine tuning motor skills is another way our individuals like to bond over yet another area of interest.
Interest groups - Interests groups are hosted in different parts of the world. Based on need and interest shown by a specific number of people with/without special needs, interest groups are formed. Example: Makeup learning, Bird watching group, Movie night club, Board games social, Bowling club, etc.
Feel free to leave a comment (or two) and tell us if there is a specific interest group the individual you support might be curious about or is already a part of?
Also, you can ask us more about the different interest groups we offer at The Owl House and how the individual you support can be a part of it.
We always love hearing from you!
Sosnowy, C., Silverman, C., Shattuck, P., & Garfield, T. (2019). Setbacks and successes: How young adults on the autism spectrum seek friendship. Autism in Adulthood, 1(1), 44-51.