The Importance of Peer Social Relationships for Individuals on the Autism Spectrum

“I know the cure for autism, friendship!” A Grade 4 Student Following the Friend 2 Friend Autism Demystification Puppet Program

I stood outside the classroom peeking in, powerless to enter because I didn’t want my son’s teacher to think I was “interfering.”  I just stood there, helplessly watching my son become so disregulated that he could not function. I took action only when I saw the teacher wave his arm toward the door and say “GET OUT!” It was like watching my son falling down the rabbit hole, knowing there was nothing I could do to stop his descent into panic and despair. As soon as he appeared in the doorway, I approached him and said, “it’s okay” as I sat down on the floor beside him in effort to help him calm down (regulate).

Over the next three months, my son’s ability to cope with the expectations at school continued to deteriorate and by early December it was clear that we needed to remove him from this school. Once the decision was made, I felt a sense of great relief and physically ill all at the same time. I had to accept the fact that there was no one who could fix the issues facing my son at school. No program, no expert, no one to help support the one thing my son desired above everything else – friends!

My son, like so many other individuals I know with autism, wants the one thing that we all want, to have friends and be accepted for who he is.

Watching my son suffer from social isolation, I felt compelled to do what I could to change this situation, not only for my son, but for others who experience these same social difficulties. In 1998, I began reading everything I could get my hands on about friendships between typical children and those with special needs. I came across a book written by Dr. Pamela Wolfberg entitled “Play and Imagination in Children with Autism.” The Integrated Play Groups® model involves bringing children with and without autism together in such a way that true friendships begin to emerge. Dr. Wolfberg’s book inspired me to learn more about fostering peer play and friendships and how the IPG approach could help my son feel part of his peer group.

After several years of extensive research, development and field-testing the Friend 2 Friend Autism Demystification Model and Programs emerged. In 2002, with the support of my family, we founded Friend 2 Friend Social Learning Society, a non-profit charity based in Vancouver BC, Canada, and started delivering the F2F Puppet Presentations, F2F Simulation Game Presentations, and Seminars for Parents and Professionals.

The Friend 2 Friend Model (F2F) is a research-based demystification model that works to foster reciprocal social relationships between individuals on the autism spectrum (and related social communication needs) and their peers. Although no independent research exists on the F2F model, the model and programs have been “kid tested” for a decade with over 150,000 children participating in the “live” programs and countless more through the delivery of the published packaged programs throughout North America and abroad. Friend 2 Friend has been keeping ongoing data on the model and programs since 2002. Our preliminary findings demonstrate that the model not only works to enhance social relationship, but is educating and enlightening a generation of children to view autism in a whole new light.

An unintended result is that the model/programs also provides individuals on the autism spectrum with information about characteristics of autism and the appropriate language to encourage self-advocacy skills. If you are impressed by qualitative data (measures of the quality of the programs and model) we certainly have lots of that. Over the years we have accumulated a substantial number of remarks, comments and observations from children, parents and educators on how the programs have positively impacted the lives of children on the autism spectrum and their peers. There has also been considerable support from families and educators worldwide who have participated in our programs.

Friend 2 Friend Social Learning Society uses the F2F model as the foundation for all of the programs and services we design and implement (Puppet Presentation Program, Simulation Game Program, Integrated Play Groups®). If you are unfamiliar with the model, I have been told that learning and using it can be a little like learning a new language. But once you have learned and applied the model, I believe you will become convinced that the F2F model and programs are founded in best practices and good common sense, but more importantly, they work.

The Principles and Practices of the Friend 2 Friend Demystification Model are as follows:

  • The Model provides demystification about characteristics of autism (and related disorders) to educate and enlighten children and adults in a manner that works to put the label of autism in a positive light. It also works toward removing the idea that autism is a “disability” or the “broken child” perspective in which individuals on the autism spectrum are seen as broken and needing to be “fixed”.
  • The Model does not use identification or disclosure as a starting point for providing educational information, instead focusing on providing general information about ASD. In fact, the F2F model sees identification or disclosure should only be offered when the individual on the autism spectrum can lead or be part of that process.
  • The Model uses a technique of “model, label, explain and normalize” characteristics of autism to promote empathy (not sympathy) and to “normalize” some of the unconventional characteristics related to autism. Normalizing these characteristics promotes “sameness” between individuals on the autism spectrum and their peers.
  • The Model focuses on educating by introducing/teaching prosocial communication strategies (to the peers and individuals on the autism spectrum) in an effort to promote successful and positive social interactions.
  • The Model follows conceptual learning goals that are the foundation for all information shared.
  • The Model looks to individuals on the autism spectrum to guide its philosophies, principles and practices, viewing them as the “experts” in understanding ASD.
  • The Model’s philosophy is that in order to support true inclusion for individuals with autism we must create a culture where different is the norm and where we look beyond “intervention” to acceptance of everyone for who they are.

I know that however successful Friend 2 Friend and our partners are at delivering this important message of understanding, acceptance, empathy and friendships, it isn’t nearly enough. As parents and professionals, we need to continually look for opportunities to model the value of play and friendships with extraordinary individuals on the autism spectrum.

When I dream of the land of chocolate, it is a place where individuals with autism have friends and feel accepted for who they are within their community. Hopefully, the Friend 2 Friend Autism Demystification and Integrated Play Groups Models will move us a little closer to making this dream a reality.

Bio: Heather McCracken is the founder and executive director of the Friend 2 Friend Social Learning Society. Heather is the creator of the Friend 2 Friend model and programs and a mother of three (Katie, Iain and Emma); her son Iain is on the autism spectrum. Heather is widely published and the autism of “That’s What’s Different About Me”, “Can I Play Too?” an “Demystifying Autism: The Friend 2 Friend Simulation Game Program” and coauthor of “Learners on the Autism Spectrum: Preparing Highly Qualified Educators”. She is an international speaker/trainer and actively designs and delivers social and communication based programs to children ages 3 through 18 in schools and other community settings throughout North America and abroad.

For more information visit about the Friend 2 Friend Programs www.friend2friendsociety.org

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