The problem, as I see it, with helping autistic children develop good social skills is that often the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, leaving socially awkward parents to teach appropriate social behavior to socially awkward children.
I had this problem long before I had a child with autism. When my first son was born, I was at the peak point in my social anxiety. Phone calls were difficult, playdates were harder, and an unexpected drop-in visit from a friend could make me drop to the floor and pretend I wasn’t at home.
Since that time, I’ve learned to manage my social anxiety and have actually become quite successful at navigating the social scene. For some of us though, setting a good social example for our children will never be easy. It’s hard enough when you have typically developing children who want to engage in playdates, playgroups, and outings, but what do you do if your child is the kind of kid who finds it easier to spend all of his time alone, and you kind of agree with him?
Possibly the easiest way to get started is by looking at what you are trying to teach your child and then apply it to yourself. Many parents put their kids with social difficulties in social skills groups. Take a page from that book and find a group for yourself. Join a moms’ club, crafting class, or political campaign. Make sure there are set meeting times so you don’t have to worry about setting up meeting times yourselves. It is much easier to attend an already in place meeting than to have to invite people to one of your own making.
Getting to an activity is only part of the battle, however. Once you’re there, you have to interact. Choosing an activity that has a specific focus takes the pressure off of you and puts in on the activity. If you join a knitting class, you can talk about knitting. If you join a moms’ club playgroup, you can talk about your kids. (Remember that even if your kid is a special needs child, both he and the typical kids can benefit from his—and your—presence.)
Should we talk about the phone? It’s terrifying. I can think of few things scarier than picking up a phone to invite someone on an outing. This is where email comes in handy. Take full advantage of the decreased pressure of sending an email invite. It not only makes it easier to initiate contact, but it gives you an opportunity to communicate everything you need to without trying to remember it all while you’re flustered on the phone. (For instance, if you’re scheduling a playdate, you can mention your child’s special needs and what your invitee can expect.)
For some people, groups can be overwhelming, but they also provide camouflage for socially awkward behavior. A small group of three or four people takes the pressure off of you to hold up half of a conversation. Once you have success in a small group, or make a connection with an individual, it is much easier to participate in a one-on-one meeting.
Be sure to prepare before you go to the meeting. Think about whom you will be chatting with and what his or her interests are. Store some topics of conversation in the back of your head in case there is an uncomfortable lull in the conversation. Pets, jobs, hobbies, pop culture, and kids are all great places to start.
There is no magic pill to make social anxiety or social awkwardness go away. If there were, we’d all be out schmoozing it up. But if your anxiety is severely impeding your life, career, or happiness, consider talking to your doctor about anti-anxiety medication.
It’s important to remember that when you’re trying to become more social (and set an example for your child) that you need to keep trying. Small successes lead to bigger successes, and once you have a few big successes, your confidence will increase and you will find it easier and easier to venture out among people.
Forcing yourself to socialize can be so very hard. Try to remember to keep a sense of humor about the whole thing. Realize that there are more socially awkward people out there than you may realize; they are just good at faking it. If you’re out with someone and feel nervous or anxious, say so. Laugh it off and make a joke about being socially insecure. At worst, your companion will not know what you mean, but will try to make you feel better; at best, you’ll find a (socially anxious) partner in crime.
There is one advantage to being a socially anxious parent of an autistic child. Feeling these emotions yourself is a great way to experience what your child is experiencing. You can take what you feel and let your child know that she isn’t alone. Then you can embark on your social skills journey together.