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Healthy school relationships: children and teenagers with autism spectrum disorder

5-18 years

Healthy relationships with peers and teachers are good for all students at school. Children and teenagers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) might need extra support to build these relationships.

Healthy school friendships for children and teenagers with autism spectrum disorder

For many children and teenagers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), friendships at school often grow from shared interests in a particular subject, hobby or activity.

You might find that your child is less interested in the social and emotional things that interest typically developing children and teenagers. In fact, your child’s ‘relating’ might only ever be about the shared interests rather than other topics or feelings.

For your child with ASD, healthy friendships might also involve friends who:

  • understand that your child has additional needs, and who don’t take your child’s involuntary behaviour personally
  • can tell when your child is starting to get tired or stressed and respect that she needs a break to recharge
  • speak up for your child when they need to.

Children and teenagers with ASD might also like spending time just watching others or doing things by themselves – for example, throwing a ball against the wall or reading. Doing things solo doesn’t necessarily mean that your child is lonely. You could ask a friend or teacher to encourage your child to join in, but it’s usually best to leave your child to decide what he wants to do.

Video

Being friends with teenagers with autism spectrum disorder

1:56

In this short video, 13-year-old Aiden talks about his friend Ellis, who has Asperger’s disorder. He discusses their shared interests, and tells how he looked out for Ellis at primary school. He says Ellis is smart, friendly, and ‘more organised than me’. His advice for other kids if they meet someone with Asperger’s is to ‘just be friendly to them’.

Healthy relationships with teachers for children and teenagers with autism spectrum disorder

A good understanding of your child’s autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and individual needs is a solid foundation for teachers’ relationships with your child.

This understanding will also help your child’s teachers support your child if she gets upset or behaves in challenging ways – which might happen at school where there’s so much information coming at her.

You can build understanding by making time to talk with teachers about your child, his strengths and interests, and any signs that he’s having trouble coping. For example, it might help a teacher to know that your child likes a specific TV show, so that the teacher can use examples from the show to teach a certain topic.

You could also explain:

  • how to tell when your child is getting tired – for example, she might run away or lash out
  • what helps your child recharge and refocus – for example, she might need to play with her phone or tablet
  • what the teacher can do to help your child calm down after an outburst – for example, set up a special place in or near the classroom where your child can go.

You could write down some of these points for teachers, noting what’s important to your child. Your child can help with these points too.

Free time at school for children and teenagers with autism spectrum disorder

For children and teenagers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who like their day to be structured, free time at school can be a challenge. But there are ways around this.

Your child might like to join a special interest group, club or other regular event that interests him. This can be a good way to encourage your child to interact with others who share the same interests.

It’s also OK if your child chooses to spend free time somewhere like the library or quiet room. This can give her the chance to recharge after a class. If this is your child’s choice, you could ask a friend or teacher to check in with your child to see how she’s going.

Unhealthy friendships and autism spectrum disorder

Unhealthy friendships can involve bullying, fake and false friends or exclusion. They might also happen when one person takes advantage of another.

Your child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) could be more vulnerable to unhealthy friendships if he:

  • takes words literally and doesn’t recognise sarcasm or a threatening tone of voice
  • doesn’t notice false or threatening gestures, facial expressions or body language
  • misinterprets other people’s actions or attempts at friendship as threatening – for example, a friendly pat on the back during a sports match
  • doesn’t recognise warning signals in his own body that something is dangerous – for example, a fast heartbeat, tensed muscles, sweaty palms or a weird feeling in his stomach.
Video

Bullying at secondary school: teenagers with autism spectrum disorder

8:46

In this short video, parents of children and teenagers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) talk about bullying at secondary school. They say it helps to teach children skills to cope with bullying, but schools also need to educate children who bully others. Parents talk about trying to get their children to talk about the problem and having good communication with the school.

Strategies for preventing unhealthy friendships

Mentors and buddies
Because your child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) might not be able to ‘read’ other people very well, it can help to pair her up with a peer, teacher or support person. This person can help your child make sense of the way others are acting and guide her on what to say and how to act around others.

Teachers can encourage children and teenagers with mutual interests – for example, Japanese animation or computer science – to form a group where they can share their interests or work on a special project a teacher has given them. This can also help build teamwork skills and create a safe environment where your child won’t feel judged.

Drama classes
These classes can be a great place for your child to watch how other children and teenagers act and to practise social skills through role-play and imitation. Your child might be able to use the classes to learn about body language, facial expressions, tone of voice and different points of view.

Drama classes can also be a way for your child to practise conversation skills and good listening skills, as well as how to respond in situations that have come up at school with his peers.

Self-defence classes
These classes can help your child:

  • learn body awareness
  • build self-confidence and self-respect
  • learn about physical boundaries and personal space
  • learn how to protect herself physically.

You could even suggest that the school runs a self-defence class as part of an after-school program.

Help with understanding sexual relationships
You or a support person might need to talk with your child about sexuality, personal space, sexual abuse and secrets. 

For example, your child might need help to interpret other people’s sexual behaviour, understand personal boundaries and notice body warning signals that something is wrong or scary. Your child also needs to know that it’s OK to have secrets, but also OK to tell someone he trusts if something is making him feel uncomfortable.

Sometimes it can be hard to keep speaking up for your child if other people don’t want to support or include her. But your child has the right to learn, feel safe and be included at school. If you feel this isn’t happening, your first step is to discuss the issue with your child’s teachers, the school principal or the parents committee.

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Last updated or reviewed
01-06-2017

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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