Guest Author - Tara O´Gorman, MSW
Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder struggle to understand social rules and expectations. While many children seem to flawlessly create and maintain friendships and relationships, kids with ASD often find themselves either misinterpreting social norms or being misunderstood themselves and struggling to make or keep friends. Parents frequently look for ways to help their child develop relationships and find a place to 'fit' and thrive.
Finding a mentor for a child with ASD can be an effective way to help. Mentors can be found within the autistic community or from a variety of other sources. Scouting programs, school peer-mentor programs, or children who have siblings on the spectrum can be great resources. Many organizations that are ASD-focused offer social groups or social-skills groups where mentors on- and off-spectrum can become excellent support systems and offer mentorships simply through connecting those with like- values and interests.
Within the autistic community, adults and teenagers who have themselves struggled with social interaction can be an excellent resource for mentorship programs or as mentors themselves. While a Scout leader, teacher, or empathetic friend can be an excellent mentor, many kids with ASD may find the most understanding and guidance from someone who has faced similar challenges. The personal connection of truly being understood, of having someone who has 'been there' and shares similar experiences, may be one of the most important experiences for a child with feelings of depression, anxiety, or loneliness from feeling disconnected.
Families looking for mentors for their child with ASD should consider many resources. Is there a local Scout group in the community? Do they have an understanding of children on the spectrum? There are even specific Scout groups in some communities that are designed for kids with ASD. Does the child's school have a peer-mentor program? Are there kids in the school who have siblings on the spectrum who would be compassionate, supportive mentors?
Check with local groups in the community who can help. Autism-focused non-profit agencies, community centers, parent support groups, and developmental-behavioral professionals (occupational therapists, speech therapists, psychologists, social workers, and behavioral therapists, among others) are excellent resources for locating potential mentors and mentorship programs. Social skills groups or social clubs that are designed for kids with ASD connect like-minded kids with each other, leading to natural opportunities for mentoring.
With some research, some patience, and some reaching out to available resources, parents can find mentoring opportunities all around them and, in turn, help create a stronger support system by connecting members of the autistic community.