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Friendship Skills

Friendship Skills: supporting Pupils at The Wherry School to Understand What Friendship is and the Development of Social Skills Within the Curriculum

One of the central diagnostic criteria for Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD) lies around a failure of individuals to develop peer relationships, how to understand what friendship is and over time demonstrate friendship skills.  And yet the greatest desire of parents and carers, when looking for the right educational support for their children, is the desire for their child to be included in social situations, to be invited to play with others, attend parties and have friends.

Neuro-typical conception of friendship changes over time but it is notable that children with autism and Asperger’s Syndrome often have an immature (relative to their chronological age) and unusual definition of friendship. 

When children with an ASD are asked “What makes a good friend?”, common responses are usually a list, almost exclusively, of actions that a person should not do, eg. bully or tease you, which indicate that a child has experienced a disproportionate level of negative experiences in their previous peer relationships and this also impacts on how they will want to engage with other pupils, particularly those who demonstrate behaviours that challenge and find learning in a small social group extremely hard. They know what a friend should not do but have little idea what they should do.

At The Wherry School, the Informal Curriculum (ASSK) and also the Personal, Social and Health Education curricula are used to develop a pupil’s understanding of their own emotions and emotional responses, through a multi-disciplinary approach, such as Emotional and Behavioural Regulation work, sensory processing and also through the development of communication skills.  This approach is supported by the Clinical Professionals Team, including Occupational Therapists, Clinical Psychologists and Educational Psychologists alongside specialist Play Therapists.


The Four Levels of Friendship Development:

The research literature on the concept of friendship indicates there are four levels between early childhood and adolescence. The four levels are summarised as follows – and also set out in the school Friendship Skills Continuum: 

The Levels

Level 1: Approximately 3 to 6 years - The child recognises that games and activities cannot happen unless there is an element of turn taking there is a simple conceptualisation of friendship in terms of defining a friend as someone who gives you things or someone you play with. Friendship at this level is based on proximity and physical attributes and when asked Why is _____ your friend? The typical response is They live next door or are in my class!

Level 2: Approximately 6 to 9 years - There is an increasing understanding of the concepts of reciprocity (give and take) and mutual rather than one-way assistance. The likes and dislikes of the other person are more likely to be considered with friendship based on how closely each friend matches their self-interest, for example, in liking similar games. There is also a new awareness of the motives, thoughts and feelings of others. 

When asked:  Why is _____ your friend? the typical response is He lets me play the games I want to, Because she comes to my party and I go to hers or She's nice to me.

Level 3: Approximately 9 to 13 years - The child is more aware of other people’s opinions of them and how their words and actions affect the feelings of others. They are more careful in what they say and do because it may be hurtful to someone. 

Friendship can be based on shared experience or common interests and helping becomes more valued than simply playing together. There is a greater selectivity in choosing friends, a gender split and a greater durability in the relationship. 

There is increased value placed on personal attributes such as trust, loyalty and keeping rather than breaking promises. When asked Why is _____ your friend, the typical response is He sticks up for me and helps me with my maths homework, She enjoys doing the things I like to do or I can talk to them and they listen.

Level 4: Adolescence to adult - Peer group acceptance becomes more important than the opinions of parents, there is a greater depth and breadth of self disclosure, desire to be understood by friends and recognition that there are different types of friendship - from acquaintances to close friends with autonomous interdependence. When asked Why is _____ your friend, the typical response is Because we think the same way about things. 


Social Skill Development at The Wherry School:

The school uses its staff to support the social development of pupils, alongside the use of Alex Kelly’s Talkabout Programme, where Social Communication skills are taught discretely.  The Primary Curriculum, in particular, supports the embedding of Social Communication skills through timetabled opportunities to play, to discuss and to be supported in practising the taught skills.  In the Secondary Phase, ASSK sessions continue to develop these skills and the Physical Enrichment programme allows pupils to again embed team work, play, cooperation and shared interests as friendship as part of the weekly Physical Education offer.

The school curriculum pays attention to the development of friendship skills as these skills are the foundation of abilities that are highly valued by any community in their professional and personal lives: skills we look to develop include:

  • teamwork skills, 
  • the ability to manage conflict and differences of opinion 
  • rebuilding relationships when things go wrong
  • having successful personal relationships. 


Social Play with friends

We know that the social play of children with an ASD is often more immature than their peers and may include unusual characteristics such as having less motivation to seek friends, qualities that may seem “self-centred” and being less able to demonstrate the wide and complex range of behaviours that are seen as friendship skills as set out in the Tiers above. 

Our children often join the school with poor relationships with peers and adults, but they really want to have friends and friendship.  

At The Wherry School we aim to teach the children the skills to develop the ability to maintain acquaintances and move from this point into friendship. 

Key Social Skills:

Children and Young People with Autism need support to develop a number of key social behaviours that cannot be assessed in a standardised way, but only through observations including:

  • Entry Skills: How the child joins a group of children and the welcome they provide for children who want to be included in their activity.
  • Assistance: Recognising when and how to provide assistance as well as seeking assistance from others.
  • Compliments: Providing compliments at appropriate times and knowing how to respond to a friend's compliment.
  • Criticism: Knowing when criticism is appropriate and inappropriate, how it is given and the ability to tolerate criticism.
  • Accepting Suggestions: Incorporating the ideas of others in the activity.
  • Reciprocity and Sharing: An equitable distribution of conversation, direction and resources.
  • Conflict Resolution: Managing disagreement with compromise, and recognising the opinions of others. Knowing not to respond with aggression or immature mechanisms.
  • Monitoring and Listening: Regularly observing the other person to monitor their contribution to the activity and body language. Their own body language indicating interest in the other person.
  • Empathy: Recognising when appropriate comments and actions are required in response to the other person's circumstances and the positive and negative feelings of others.
  • Avoiding and Ending: The appropriate behaviour and comments to maintain solitude or end the interaction.

Friendship Skill Development

The curriculum offer develops opportunities for the children to learn about how to demonstrate the skills set out above; If the skills outlined above occur, then this behaviour is recognised and rewarded both to the individual and also those playing alongside.

The children’s social play is monitored by all adults to identify when the cues for specific friendship skills occur but the child is not able to recognise in themselves or others, or maybe is unsure how to respond. Then verbal prompts and instruction can be given as to what to do. 

We know that children with an ASD are unusual in that they can be taught what to do in a specific given situation, but they may not understand why the action or comment is appropriate or they may not be able to quickly generalise. 

The curriculum offer, providing opportunities to play, to interact through communication games, shared tasks, shared learning opportunities such as Forest Schools, are embedded in the school offer, as we know that the pupils need to learn the theory as well as the practice. 

Friendship skill development for children with an ASD is not a simple linear progression of skills, we know that ASD can present with significant problems with Theory of Mind Skills.  To support this, and to support pupils when friendship seems to break down, we use a number of key communication tools to assist the children with understanding the language around friendship (eg sharing or helping) acquiring skills and repairing friendships and dealing with conflict.  These include:

  • Comic Strip conversations – these can be drawn
  • Use of photographs 
  • Use of Scripts and scripted responses
  • Social Stories