In the state of Wisconsin, the average age for receiving an autism spectrum diagnosis is 4-1/2 years old (CDC, 2012). By this time, while most parents report that their child later diagnosed with ASD exhibited symptoms before seeking a medical diagnosis, children should already have been receiving services through Birth to 3. That being the case, many of these children transition into their school district's Early Childhood program (age 3-5, or kindergarten), where, hopefully, they have access to typically-developing peers.
In the case of my now adolescent children with autism, we are fortunate enough to live in a resource-rich area where my intentions to maximize their social and educational experiences were realized without extraordinary effort. Sure, I had to serve as my daughter's "educational assistant" in a private day care when she was 3 years old because she wasn't yet toilet trained and required additional social support, but it provided opportunities for me as a mother to recognize what developmental areas required extra attention and focus on those in- and outside the day care setting.
One of those areas for both of my children was their relationship development. When I was asked by neuropsychologists during their diagnostic interviews how many "friends" my children had, I guess I wasn't so sure of the definition. It was loosely described to me during the evaluation process as particular same-aged peers whose company they sought out or enjoyed. Having no "normal" baseline before I observed my children with their classmates, I assumed the parallel play my 4-year-olds engaged in was age-appropriate. But by the definition of friendship in a recent textbook I was reviewing in preparation for a guest lecture, my children with ASD had no friends.
However, I think we need to measure and define friendship a little differently for our students with ASD. If we can base friendships on shared interests, mutual admiration, and general good will (versus willingness to share, the ability to enter play situations, and solve conflicts, for example), then it will be easier to pair typically-developing students with their classmates with autism. Students with ASD may be unskilled at initiating social interactions, but that proclivity my 3-year-old daughter had to pet her classmate's long, silky hair both satisfied a sensory input desire and served as a greeting. My 4-year-old son's proximal babbling with eye contact demonstrated to his classmate that he wanted to communicate with him. These, in my opinion, are the seeds of relationships and should be celebrated as such.
So the next time you see a 3- to 5-year-old with autism in the vicinity of neurotypical peers, encourage the budding healthy interactions without concern about the quality or duration. Keep rewarding efforts to engage peers while teaching social understanding and motivating students with ASD. The baby steps you take in these early years are the training exercises for the races they'll run as they get into intermediate elementary education and beyond.
What precious "friendship skills" have you noticed in your young students with autism?