LD friends tips 180Making friends and learning social rules can be difficult for people with autism or learning disabilities, but as these tips show, there are simple and fun ways to help them to do it:

Follow their interests My son has had a lifelong interest in art museums, so we often bring along a friend, which proves very popular. Another fascination is carnivorous plants, so I brought a group of his peers to the botanical garden to see the Venus fly traps and pitcher plants.

Learning to ask questions I coached my daughter in how to ask questions and make conversation by playing a role play game with her. I pretended to be a famous reporter interviewing her about her Moshi Monsters collection, and then we’d swap characters. She actually liked being the famous reporter! We would video and “broadcast” these exchanges.

Teaching social rules. Explaining social communication rules to someone with an autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) can be difficult. Use a visual aid, such as large coloured beads or finger puppets to represent other people. Learning social communication rules is like learning a foreign language; it’s not impossible, but has to come from an external source and you have to teach them.

Mr Potato Head Mr Potato Head – the toy and the app – has been great for teaching my son about basic facial expressions. It also helps him understand how other features such as shoes, earrings and hats can help identify friends and family.

Social network People & Places is a secure, moderated social networking website for people from vulnerable community groups. It is also for people who work and support people in these groups: www.mypeopleandplaces.co.uk

Supervised activities. Over the years, I have found my son has responded better socially in activities that are supervised. He was great in cubs and scouts as he liked the structure and boundaries. Now an adult he still responds well to rule-based activities or heavily refereed sports!

Know the limits. Sometimes I push my son to tolerate longer periods of socialising, but I also know to make a hasty retreat when I see a shift in mood or agitation. When he was younger, I limited playdates to about one hour, but now he enjoys two hours. Being sensitive to his mood increases his interest in planning future playdates.

Practice turn taking. My adult son still struggles with sharing, taking turns and going ‘first’ or ‘last’. I try and practice and prepare him as much as possible at every opportunity, be it dishing up at the table or getting into the car. It definitely helps with his social skills.

Peer mentors. A good mainstream school should set up ‘peer mentors’ or ‘buddies’ for your child with special needs. Teachers should look for existing positive relationships other classmates have with your child, and identify someone who they can guide to help with encouraging appropriate communication skills.

Raise awareness. It’s good to be honest and upfront about your child’s needs. I noticed my daughter was getting stared at in Brownies so I did a short talk to the pack about her disabilities and how they affect her. It really helped.

No One to Play With. There’s a rather old book called No One to Play With: Social Side of Learning Disabilities by Betty B Osman. Beware, some of the terminology is no longer used and could offend nowadays but the ideas within are still highly relevant.

Parallel play. Don’t knock parallel play – it’s a start! My son with ASD doesn’t like to interact much but he will happily engage in the same activities alongside other people. It can fuel interaction or friendships – especially if there is a common shared interest.

Identify goals. Think about short and long-term development of social skills. Break down those stages of development into tiny steps and create the “scaffolding” to support each step for the person you care for.