Inclusion is fine, but don’t forget “like” peers on autism

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I am amazed at how many parents focus mainly on having their children relate with neurotypical (NT) peers. Although the children need to learn how to integrate into our social world, they often cannot carry the weight (pace and complexity) of relating with NT peers.

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Often the feeling is “if he is around the NT kids long enough he will learn social skills.” However, socialization develops faster if the children are on the same level socially and develop skills together. Usually when children on the spectrum are included with NT children the interaction is not equal with both partners taking turns regulating the interaction.

Usually either the NT child is regulating most of the play or (more commonly) the child on the spectrum is controlling the interaction, rather than reciprocal co-regulation. When one partner is relating on a different level than the other, learning to co-regulate interaction is difficult.

Also, many of the children simply do not “get it” when trying to keep up with the fast paced, often complexed play strategies of NT children. They may go along for the ride, but really not learn how to engage. Or, they dominate the play so they can pace it and make it predictable for them.

I am not saying don’t include the children with NT peers, however, please teach the other children how to play with your child. Don’t expect them to know how to read your child and understand why he is out of sync with them. Children often reject and/or tease when they do not understand the behavior of the child on the spectrum.

However, with a little awareness training and coaching the NT children are often fine with playing if they understand the child’s behavior. Both the NT peers need to know how to play with your child, as well as the play should be facilitated by an adult to help make the play “user friendly” for all. Even with facilitated play with NT peers is desirable in small doses, remember that it is very exhausting for the child and keep exposure to small doses until he becomes more skilled at relating.

In addition, please consider finding programs or activities for your child to relate and build friendships with other kids on the spectrum. Give them the opportunity to play with children that socialize at the same level as them. Find a local autism support group where you can meet other families and children that are at your child’s social functioning level. Often they are relating on an equal playing field; more literal, less nonverbal communication, similar interests, etc.

When teaching relating skills it is much easier if both children are on the same level so they are more able to co-regulate the back and forth reciprocal play. They will feel more safe and accepted and will relax and enjoy the relating better.

I coach soccer and basketball programs for children on the spectrum, sometimes up to 80-100 children a week over six sessions. Once they have been together for a few months it is amazing to see how comfortable they are with each other; relaxing and supporting each other. Maybe not relating in the same way as NT children do, but co-regulating just the same.

However, it is more on their own terms where they can read the flow of interaction better and feel safe in their own quirky ways. They are more accepted, less pressured, and more relaxed. They do not always like each other (nor doe NT peers), but they feel more comfortable engaging with each other. Relating is about sharing experiences with others in a relaxed and comfortable way. Not tense and draining like trying to relate in NT peer activities.

If you do not have a autism center or support group near you, ask the teachers if there are any other children who relate on the same level that you might be able to build play dates with. Eventually build two or three friends that share common social skills and vulnerabilities. It is ok to focus on exposing your child to brief activities with NT children, but allow them to fall back on relating with others on common ground. They will experience the best of both worlds!

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