Autism Unexpected: Teaching Social Skills at Home


It’s 8:45 p.m. and my son Jack and his little brother are supposed to be asleep in the bedroom they share, stacked in bunk beds one atop the other. They, however, are wide awake and chatting with each other.

The mom in me thinks I should march in there, separate them and threaten them to within an inch of their lives if they don’t fall asleep right this very minute!

The autism mom in me, however, is delighted. I can’t tell what they’re chatting about—if I had to guess, I would wager that it is a conversation about a complicated video game mission that the two of them are creating in their minds—but I don’t really care.

They’re talking. One speaks, then the other follows up with a related sentence, and it continues for as long as I listen. It’s not really that big of a deal, unless learning how to hold a conversation is not something that comes naturally to your child.

This is the advantage I have in parenting a child with autism who has both an older and a younger brother. Social skills never stops at my house.

There have been many times when my family is out and about somewhere, and my three kids are running around like the little chaos machines that they are, and I think, “Wow, this would be so much easier with fewer children.” But then I stop and think, “No, really having three kids makes life so much easier.” And that’s not just because they play with each other instead of hassling me to play Candy Land.

My parenting goal when it comes to my children is that I want to make them a unit. I want them to be able to count on each other and be each others’ best friends. I want their brotherhood to be one of their strongest, life-long bonds.

I have long accepted that eventually they will use that bond to become united against me. I am 100% okay with that.

This sibling bond became even more important to me once my middle son, Jack, was diagnosed on the autism spectrum a few years ago. Since then, having one brother ahead of him in school, and one behind, has been nothing short of a godsend. Being sandwiched between brothers has helped in many other ways as well, especially in the social skills arena.

Jack has a fair amount of trouble relating to his peers. While his teachers are fantastic, they don’t have time to try to get him to engage with the other kids as much as he needs. Jack has a social skills group once a week, but an hour of group time cannot make up for the other 167 hours in the week. Adults will socialize with Jack, but that’s not his main problem. He needs to learn to engage with other children.

What Jack does have are brothers. His brothers are constantly socializing with him, pushing him to participate in appropriate social behavior. They ask him questions, they include him in games, they have hurt feelings and desires that require Jack to learn to navigate these kinds of interaction, but in a safe place.

I think that we are doubly fortunate in that Jack has an older brother who paves the way for him (and me!) both in school and coming-of-age experiences. Having an older brother helps Jack reach, stretch and grow. Jack’s younger brother is wonderful because he looks up to Jack so very much, and it is so valuable for Jack to get to be a role model. Not to mention that, in certain things, Jack and his younger brother are very much on the same developmental level, so it is lovely that they can share their interests.

However, learning how to interact with his brothers can’t be the be-all, end-all. They learned his mannerisms and quirks so well that they will often compensate without even thinking about it, letting Jack slide by without utilizing the skills he is learning. It is so important that Jack have typical peers around who don’t know what he’s thinking.

Enter my other sons’ buddies. Because my three kids are so close in age, they like to do many of the same things. When my oldest or youngest son has a friend over, Jack gets to practice his social abilities to figure out how he can get involved in what they are doing.

Plus, his brothers act as a sort of buffer between Jack and other kids, who may not understand his peculiarities.

There are times when we have kids over to play with Jack as well. Those playdates can be hard. It can be exhausting to try to get Jack to engage with a peer for an hour or two. I imagine it’s tough for Jack as well. When Jack (or I) needs a break, his brothers are there to step in and shoulder some of the pressure of playing.

Mundane things can teach social thinking skills when you do them all day, every day. Even something as simple as filing into the bathroom at night to brush teeth can be a lesson in patience and turn taking.

Having two brothers helps Jack with so much in the social skills milieu. I believe that the more success and fun he has with his brothers, the more interested he gets in non-familial children. Having brothers around helps Jack see that there are benefits to interacting with other kids. Furthermore, my other children can be role models for typical behavior. (Although, frankly, they have their own quirks, too.)

All this said, there are downsides. Families with only children have so much more time and resources to spend with their autistic child. When you’re focused on only one child, it is so much easier to target exactly what he or she needs; there is no other child with competing desires. Every time I’m waiting for Jack in a speech or occupational therapist’s waiting room with my other kids, I think about how much easier it would be with just the one.

Let me tell you also, that it’s not all smiles and sunshine in my household. Yes, my kids all get along and play together beautifully—when they’re not screaming at each other and trying to commit fratricide.

Still, for my family, the benefits outweigh the negatives. More than anything else, I am so grateful that Jack gets to experience the greatest social benefit of all: having two best friends who accept him as he is. Yes, they get frustrated sometimes and, yes, sometimes Jack gets annoyed, but for a child who wants to socialize, as Jack does, having two willing bodies nearby is the best thing we could hope for.

Originally published at Autism Unexpected on April 26, 2011.