I was recently invited to speak to a group of Cub Scouts about Autism. Their pack was having a meeting about diversity, and I wasn’t the only speaker. They are so young. All of them are between 8 and 12. So I adapted my talk to their understanding, and focused on how they can be a good friend to someone who is different. It is a topic I think everyone could visit, so I decided to make it an article. Here are 10 Tips for being a good friend.
1- Autistic brains work differently
How many of us have an Xbox? What about a Playstation, Nintendo, or Wii? Do games for an Xbox work on a Wii? Well that’s an excellent way to think about a kid with Autism vs a kid without it. When you have Autism your brain works differently. And you have to work harder than most to understand people. But Autism also gives you superpowers.
Each person is different. But generally kids with autism are really good at computer games. And when they are interested in something, they easily become an expert. But sometimes they can be sensitive to loud sounds and smells, or they can be easily distracted.
So here are some specific tips on how to be a good friend when your friend has Autism.
2- Play gently and Don’t hit
It’s a rule your mom has told you before, because nobody likes to be punched. But sometimes we like to push and shove as part of our games. But a kid on the Autism Spectrum is extra sensitive to being hit. So don’t bump or smack them. And if you do, be sure you apologize right away or they may think you are being mean to them when you aren’t.
3- Be Kind and Don’t Tease them
Your friend may be clumsy, they may not get the joke every time, and they may be distracted. They may tell jokes you don’t get too. That’s just a sign your brains work differently.
Your friend has a lot going on in his mind. They are trying to translate the whole world from Wii into Xbox. If you tease them it only makes it harder for them. Being kind will make everyone have more fun.
4- Use their name instead of a nickname
A lot of kids with Autism don’t like to be called by a nickname. I will never forget my son coming home from a brief visit with a neighbor. He was only 3, but he was so upset. My neighbor is a nice man, and I had watched them talk the whole time, so I knew nothing bad had happened. But when I got the story out of my son, he was upset because the neighbor had called him “Little Man”. He didn’t understand that nicknames are given out of affection. And your friend may feel the same way. Even “Buddy”, or their last name can bother them and make it harder to be friends.
5- Be a good sport
Your friend will need you to explain new games, and may get it wrong a couple times. But remember that you both will have games you are good at while the other is not as good. You may beat him throwing a basketball into the hoop. But he will likely beat you at computer games. So be a good sport so you can both have fun when either one of you is winning.
6-Find things you both like to do
You both have things you are good at. But it is important to find something you both enjoy so that playing together is more fun. Take turns choosing an activity to help you find something you love.
7- They may make sounds or movements that are different. That’s normal.
Have you ever seen a kid flapping their hands? Or gently punching their leg? Have you ever heard a kid make funny sounds over and over? These are called “Stims” or “Stimming”. Essentially it’s an autism kid rebooting his hard drive. He is resetting his insides so he can keep playing or working with the world around him. It may surprise you, but it isn’t supposed to be scary. And it’s not dangerous. Some of these things they can’t control. They aren’t trying to be annoying. It will help you be a better friend if you give them freedom to do these quirky things without teasing.
When you are constantly trying to translate the world around you, life can be exhausting. Your friend may need to take a break and be alone for a while. Being with people can be hard for them. And that’s ok. Taking breaks makes it easier to be patient with each other.
9- Speak up and ask questions
Your friend is different, and he knows it. Instead of just watching him, go talk to him. When you have a question, don’t be afraid to ask him. Talking about things will make your friendship easier. Everyone enjoys it when someone takes an interest in them.
Too often we watch someone different and ask each other questions about them. But talking to them directly will open doors to friendships you never thought possible.
10- We can all be kind
I have a friend whose son has autism, and kids aren’t kind to him. That breaks my heart. And it happens way too often. Everyone is dealing with hard things in their lives. We are all different, with different challenges. But kindness and understanding will go a long way to make you a better friend. And you will never go wrong being kind to someone.
I really enjoyed speaking to the boys. And as the news keeps sharing terrible stories of bullying and retaliation, I know that the whole world needs better tools for friendship. We need to be kinder and more understanding of one another. We are all God’s children. And we all matter to Him. We should start mattering more to each other too.
Abby is a one of those women who accidentally finds herself on the PTA board. She loves to be involved, and nothing matters more to her than her family and her faith. She comes from a family with many autistic members. And now she gets to see how her mother felt raising an autistic son. As she wades into this new world, she invites us to join her. Hopefully, we will all learn something new along the way. If you or a family member have autism yourself, Abby wants you to know that this isn't a bad thing. It's just an adjustment, and you or your loved one are not sick or broken. Together we will learn this new language.