Friendship rules for kids on the spectrum

Dear Mr. Dad: My 13-year old son has Autism Spectrum Disorder. He’s such a great kid — smart, athletic, good looking — but has a lot of trouble making friends. I’ve seen other kids exclude him and I know he feels rejected, which makes him not even want to try to connect with others. I feel sad to see him so lonely. Isn’t there something we can do to help?

A: While most tweens and teens are able to form friendships, around 30% find it difficult. One of the biggest reasons is that they’re rejected by their peers, according to Elizabeth Laugeson, author of “The Science of Making Friends.” And a good part of that rejection happens because kids like your son don’t recognize social cues such as body language and tone of voice, and they don’t understand the “rules” of making friends.

The good news is that those rules (which apply just as well to children who are simply shy or anxious as they do to those with Autism or other medical conditions) can be learned. Your first step should be to pick up a copy of Laugeson’s book. It’s absolutely fascinating — and even comes with a DVD that demonstrates the rules in action along with the consequences of not following them. Here are some of the basics that you can start teaching your son.

Make eye contact. While this might sound obvious, a lot of kids have trouble finding that perfect place in between no eye contact at all (which makes the person you’re speaking with think you’re not interested) and staring (which makes people feel creepy).

Respect personal space. Standing too far away seems weird, while standing too close makes a lot of people feel uncomfortable. An arm’s length away is about right.

— Control the volume. Don’t yell and don’t whisper.

Trade information. Conversations are two-way streets: one person says something, then the other does.

Find common interests. Without something in common, it’s hard to get a friendship off the ground.

Ask the other person about him or herself. The goal is to find common interests, and asking questions shows you care about the other person.

Don’t get too personal. In the early stages of a friendship, it’s best to stick with those common interests. As trust grows, it’s okay to talk (and ask) about personal issues.

— Don’t go overboard. Asking questions is great, but too many of them makes people feel like they’re being interrogated.

— Don’t be a hog. It’s not a conversation if one person is doing all the talking.

— If trying to join a group, first listen to the topic (but don’t stare at people). If you’re interested, move closer, wait for a pause in the conversation, and either make a comment or ask a relevant question.

Do a reality check. This is one of the most important rules — and also the most difficult to master for kids who have trouble deciphering facial expressions and other social cues. Once you’ve entered into a conversation, whether it’s with one person or a group, it’s important to figure out whether he, she, or they are actually interested in keeping it going. Ask yourself these three questions: Are they talking to me or asking me questions? Are they facing me? Are they looking at me? If the answer to any of those questions is No, it’s time to move on.

Not every friendship attempt your son makes will be successful. But if you spend some time practicing these rules with him, he’ll eventually break through.

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