My 5-year-old is in Kindergarten. I work at home and I pick him up from the bus stop every day.

Everyday, the first thing out of his mouth after school is, "Can I have a play date with so and so (person varies)?"

I really really want him to play with friends for multiple reasons - not the least of which being that I need to work, and I get less done if he's around - and so in spirit, I'm more than glad to grant his request.

In practice though it ends up being extremely painful.

First of all, I don't think we've ever had somebody come to our door asking to play with him. But, he's young, I don't know if that means too much.

More importantly though, I watch him play with kids and attempt to play with kids, and it seems like they don't want to play with him. I also watch the way he behaves around them, and for lack of a better word; he behaves "weird". Other words that may fit are "annoying" or "socially awkward".

Today, I watched him follow a girl who's his age asking her if she wanted to have a play date, while she literally ran away. It seems like he's not quite present with people and not responding well to social cues (I don't know what I should expect here - but he seems not to be doing well).

This general sentiment is echoed by his Kindergarten teacher. She says that he is often "annoying" to others, and often seems oblivious to social cues.

He has been evaluated by a psychologist who after watching a video of him interact with an intern for an hour decided to diagnose him with OCD, mild Autism Spectrum Disorder, and ADHD. I don't entirely disagree with her conclusion, but if it's that easy to diagnose complicated physiological brain issues then it seems like the diagnosis is the same as no diagnosis.

Regardless of what diagnosis he has, I still need to deal with this in real time. I don't want to suppress him, and I also suspect that anything I do will make it worse (I'm not saying this is true - that's just how it occurs to me), but it's now becoming too painful for me. I need to find a way to approach this situation more effectively - right now I find myself almost resentful of my child for "making" me deal with this.

I love my kid; and this post is probably less about him than it is about me. He's great. I find myself wanting so badly to help him avoid the discomfort that can follow social difficulties; and I am way too close to see clearly; but I want to find a way to interact with this so that I have peace and he develops appropriate social skills.

Addendum - I forgot to mention that we have already begun work with the school, and in my opinion (though I lack any basis for comparison), we have some extraordinary individuals working in our school district who really seem to be competent and caring. Also, we are sending him to ABA this summer for some of the time.

I suppose my real question is - what do I do now - in the moment - as this is happening? How do I interact with him about it? Should I offer correction? Should I just try to stop being so attached to how it looks, and let him work it out on his own? (Not that I am certain that I am capable of this).

I don't want to punish him; like he can't play with his friends - he has done nothing that deserves punishment - but at the same time, I don't want to just say, sure, go play with so and so; even though it seems clear to me that so and so doesn't want to play.

Or, maybe I'm trying to hard to protect him. I've always considered myself to have a degree of skill with thinking things like this through, and finding a sane and empowering place to come from - and if it were someone else coming to me for advice about a similar situation, I'm certain I'd know exactly what guidance to offer; but with my own kid, I feel completely helpless.

  • 1
    Sounds a bit like me at that sort of age: nobody wanted to play with me, and I couldn't figure out why or how to fix the situation. I don't have any good answers, I'm afraid. I do remember a few adults trying to offer advice that (even then) seemed basically useless. Commented Jun 7, 2016 at 17:20
  • Did they perform (or have you taken yourself) the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (M-CHAT) actionbehavior.com/mchat checklist? It's a 5 to 10 minute screening that can provide some objective scoring on the risk of a child being diagnoses with Autism Spectrum Disorder. This can be a good basis for deciding if a second opinion should be obtained. Commented Feb 17, 2017 at 15:45
  • @PaulJohnson I feel the same way. I'm not sure what advice I would give my past self other than to get into Dungeons and Dragons at an earlier age. Commented Apr 30, 2017 at 22:36

6 Answers 6


My nine year old has had similar difficulties, although he does not yet have an official diagnosis. These are some things we found to help:

First of all, consider that he doesn't need a lot of friends, he just needs one good one. It can take a while to find one, but there is someone out there who is the right mix of tolerance and kindness and quirkiness to be your son's friend. Don't give up.

Second, make an effort to make him available for neighborhood friends. For lack of a better way to put it, kids are less picky about who they play with when they're desperate. If your son's the only one outside, neighborhood kids will play with him just because he's there, even if it's only for a little while, and even if they wouldn't play with him if they had to make an effort to plan something ahead of time.

Make time to observe your son and act as his "relationship coach." When he doesn't pick up on social cues, tell him in a matter-of-fact way what those cues mean, and provide alternatives. "She's running away because she doesn't want to talk to you right now. That boy over there is looking around like he would like to play with someone. Why don't you ask him if he wants to play?"

Interestingly, when I started putting these social cues into words, I found it was sometimes more difficult than I anticipated. It's something most people "just know," without really putting much thought into it.

Then after you've coached him on the same social cue a few times, you can change it to a question. "What does it mean when someone is running away?" Even if it doesn't occur to him naturally, he should be able to reason through it mechanically after a while.

Whatever you do, let go of the notion that he would somehow be better off figuring it out on his own. He will have plenty of opportunity to practice when you're not around. There's no harm in giving him as much coaching as you are able, as long as you make it about teaching the social cues, not some sort of disciplinary event.

My son's nonverbal reaction to that sort of teaching is something like, "Oh thanks, I didn't know. That helps." Or at worst, "Oh yeah, I forgot." If it ever results in shame, you're doing it wrong.

  • 4
    What a great answer! Ironically, after I posted this, I went on a bike ride with my son, and we ran into one of his friends-they played like kids are supposed to play, and his mom told me they were telling other kids at school they were brothers. After that I say to myself, "Boy am I stupid! He's perfect." I know I'll sway back and forth again, because he's my kid and I want him to have everything. But your answer gives me some great grounding for when I'm not sure where to stand.
    – dgo
    Commented Jun 7, 2016 at 2:00
  • 1
    Also - just to clarify - I think he's perfect no matter what. So that was probably bad phrasing in the previous comment, but I think my meaning was clear.
    – dgo
    Commented Jun 7, 2016 at 2:02
  • 1
    Amazing advice - telling them how to read social cues is a great way to tackle it.
    – Thorst
    Commented Jun 7, 2016 at 8:37
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    This is a GREAT answer. If you are friendly with any of the kids friends (or potential friends) parents, you might want to enlist them to help - help them to clue you kid into social clues too, and have them help their own kid be tolerant and understanding, and maybe expressing themselves overly clear. (like I don't think running away from someone asking for a playdate is appropriate for older kids, at some point you have to teach them to say 'No thank you, not today. Maybe another day')
    – Ida
    Commented Jun 7, 2016 at 18:50

First of all, I'm glad you've had him seen by a medical professional, because usually that is my first piece of advice.

If your gut doesn't tell you that what the doctor diagnosed him with is true, then I highly suggest a second opinion. Like you, I think I'd be a bit hesitant to blindly accept the diagnosis of my child based on watching a video interaction. So, if your gut says the diagnosis is off, then start there and seek help from a different doctor. If you get the same diagnosis from a second doctor, then maybe that will be enough to have you set aside your feelings, and maybe it is time to switch to a different mode.

If for some reason, you can't or don't want to see a new doctor, see what help you can get from the school. Since you have a medical diagnosis, call the school (or the school district) and see what types of services are available to children with that diagnosis.

This becomes even more important next year in first grade where he spends most of his day in school. You want to make sure he's getting the support he needs at school, from his teacher and from the administration.

In terms of dealing with the social issues he's encountering right now, I think I'd first ask him in a non-threatening, non-judgmental way, and see how he thinks things are going. Ask him if he has friends at school. Depending on his responses, you might dig deeper and ask him if he has any ideas why kids act the way they do towards him. Find out, if you can, what is happening in his brain and how he feels about it. Then you can develop a strategy for helping him cope.

As a parent, if you determine the doctor's diagnosis is correct, you may find that you want to join either an in-person or online community of parents of children with similar diagnoses. Those parents will likely have much broader experience and perspective on how to help your child than our generic group will.

You may find that you benefit from counseling to help you cope with a child with a disability. You may find your child benefits from some form of play therapy to help him improve his understanding of and ability to respond to social cues.

In summary: Trust your gut. Don't quit until you are satisfied with the diagnosis. You are his advocate, so fight for him. Early intervention is much better than later intervention, so it is good you are trying to start now. Find out what the school can do to help your family. Get the support you need, for both of you.

Finally, as I always state, I'm not a doctor. This isn't medical advice. It is parenting advice from one parent-advocate to another. You can do this.

  • Thanks for your response. While it is definitely in the spirit of what I believe to be the correct answer, I find myself in the same place I started in. Please see my addendum. Thanks again
    – dgo
    Commented Jun 6, 2016 at 21:36

I've worked with young adults with autism, and I could always tell which parents had put in lots of hard work in their upbringing. Full parent support ensured that the children grew up to become adults whom reached their full potential (whichever level this was for them). So in answering your question on what you can do, I think it's very important that you're there to support him, whether you're dealing with a type of autism or a different type of social difficulty. Some great advice has been given on this by user1167442. And in the line of this, I'd like to add that you could model and explain your own social behaviour. Often when I'm doing a favour for a friend or catching up with them, I make a point of explaining to my own children why this is valuable and giving examples of what they could do with their friends. Also, offering as many different opportunities as possible would be great. We all make social mistakes, but your child may need more experience to work out the 'rules'. And it will also support him to transfer skills across situations.

The other thing you can 'do in the mean time' (which will help both you and your son), is thinking about your expectations and values of your child's social behaviour. Do you need to adjust any implicit or explicit expectations you may have had? Do you want your child to have gained 'normal social skills' (whatever that means) by the time he has grown up? Is that a reasonable expectation? How would you feel if that was not possible? Or is your current struggle coming from a different perspective? Perhaps you're merely afraid that your child gets hurt? In that case you could think about creating opportunities to practise, with a (for you) acceptable amount of risk to get hurt. Or ways to protect him from getting hurt. Or which coping mechanisms could you encourage when he does get hurt. Lastly, in this thinking process, it's important to have a clear idea of what the main values are that you'd like to strive towards. There's for example a big difference in whether you'd strive for a child that has gain the skill of popularity or the skill of kindness. Which values do you feel are most realistic to reach and most worthy of focusing your hard work and effort on encouraging.


I'm not officially diagnosed but have social deficits and significant problems with inattention so as someone who is a young adult (22), one thing now that I wish my parents had done for me growing up is to not assume that "social cues" are a natural occurrence. They're taught. They're a by-product of an economic structure. And ABA is well and good in its own way but a lot of the time it fails to replicate situations presented in real life. You can teach a child to respond to a situation by modeling one response but people are spontaneous, they don't always react the way we think they will. This has the potential to end up disappointing an autistic person as we are prone to meltdowns/confusion when our formulaic and ritualistic approaches don't work or are interrupted. So it's important not to just teach a child with such deficits "rules" but perspective-taking. Autistic people aren't robots as much as the media likes to portray us that way.

Instead of explaining "That girl doesn't like this. This boy doesn't like that" try and tell him that sometimes people don't like to learn and talk about one or two things in depth like he does. Sometimes people won't get as excited as he does. That everybody is different and he shouldn't get upset if someone doesn't want to play or changes the subject to something he doesn't feel strongly about. Warn him of MANY different possibilities that could occur in conversations so he can create a plan for himself accordingly. Again, this is formulaic but that's essentially who we are. Many of us are honest and expect other people to be that way so we sometimes fail to understand things with double meaning or intended sarcasm/malice etc;.

Appearing "normal" (whatever that means) can also wear us down after a while so be sure to let him know you accept him and let him pursue his special interests. If he stims make sure to explain to him how people might interpret that as well as I honestly didn't know for the longest time (my parents still refuse to believe I have autism) which made transitioning to certain situations difficult.


I'd suggest arranging some more structured activities for him to do with his friends.

This won't take away the necessity for him to learn how to do free-form play, but it might make play-dates with him more fun for the other kids (and for you).

Arrange a craft activity or a board game, take them bowling, anything where the nature of the activity is such that the 'rules' (e.g. 'you take it in turns to bowl') are laid out explicitly and he doesn't need to interpret implicit social signals to understand them.

  • This is coaching we have received from other sources as well. Thanks.
    – dgo
    Commented Feb 21, 2017 at 20:10

"suppose my real question is - what do I do now - in the moment - as this is happening? How do I interact with him about it? Should I offer correction? Should I just try to stop being so attached to how it looks, and let him work it out on his own?"

There is really a lot that you can do at home, but it appears that you have not been given much by way of strategies, which puzzles me.

If you feel that you have been shortchanged by the evaluator, I will suggest getting another opinion. Besides observing your child, there should have been questionnaire to be filled in by you, by the teachers, as well as 1-1 evaluation with the child. At the end of that, there should be a detailed written report. Take that report, really read through it, note all the questions you have, and clarify them in the post report meeting with the psychologist. This is when you know you are getting what you paid for. A good psychologist will pinpoint all the hidden areas of difficulties and tell you what you need to do, or refer you on to another specialist for targeted help.

after gathering all the information you need, you can then put it all into a structured action plan. Childhood is the golden years when you can make the most difference, and consistency is the key to making long term improvements. You can read up on the importance of early intervention in affecting children's developmental trajectory.

In my experience, therapists are very eager to coach parents on what they can do at home to make a difference. Attend the ABA sessions together with your child and observe the therapist at work. It is often not just what they say, but also how they say it. Observe the speed of interaction, how much scaffolding the therapist provided in explaining situation etc. Try to duplicate that at home in your daily interaction.

Ask for recommendations for home remediation - you will likely be given book titles on social cues appropriate for that age group, and also ideas for role playing at home. Set aside regular time for them, e.g. Twice a week role play.

To put it into real world use, you can organise a play date under your close supervision. Remember the more children there are, the more complicated the social language becomes. I will suggest starting with just one other child who shares similar likes and dislikes and preferably not too far apart in terms of social maturity. This is not the time to sit back and let kids occupy themselves. You have to sit in and watch, give some guidance, and perhaps take note of any recurring situation that you may need to work on with him another day, or to reflect it to the ABA therapists and say this is one area that he is having difficulties with, what can we do about it. Keep it short and sweet e.g. 1-1.5 hr before things go downhill, and keep snacks handy.

It is a lot of work, but it will pay off in the older years. My ds1 has three concurring formal diagnoses for school accommodation purpose, and two more unofficial ones which I was briefed on. One of them is social language difficulties. Because of his years of early intervention, it is invisible to the layperson and he is very popular in school and a real social butterfly. The unexpected outcome is that his teachers think he is very mature (which stems from us analysing situations and naming emotions) and none of them believe he has social language difficulties when there is a misunderstanding. We try to keep ahead of the social demands he may meet by getting resources on social language to prepare him. This includes discussing movies with relevant themes /scenes, news articles of incidents between teenagers etc.

You mentioned ADHD as one of the diagnosis. I wonder if strategies on self regulation should be the focus. One of the books recommended by our therapist was The Zones of Regulation and it covers both self regulation and social language cues. I am not sure if it can be useful to you, but what I really liked about it was how idiot-proof it is. link: http://www.zonesofregulation.com/index.html

Whatever you choose to do, it has to be sustainable for the whole family, financially and emotionally. I will advocate a slow and steady approach where you do what is manageable for you, with consistency. All the best!

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