Best of Friends

best of friendsJ and A are the best of friends, yet a few months ago they didn’t know each other.  Living at the opposite ends of Belfast, the boys met for the first time at Autism NI’s Big Lottery funded ‘Skills for Staying Safe’ programme, which aims to enable children and young people with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) to develop the knowledge and skills so that that are less vulnerable to becoming the victims of any type of offence.

They weren’t the only ones that formed a friendship. Over a coffee downstairs, their parents waited patiently, hoping that their children would at least stay in the sessions, let alone make friends. During the two hours of those often wet and cold Saturday mornings, the parents had the opportunity to discuss their experiences of Autism, education, support and ways of coping, something that proves a comfort and relief to parents of children with ASD.  “It was good to see that we weren’t the only ones going through it” recalled A’s mum.

In the sessions, the group, all aged 8-12 years old, began the programme by learning some rules to forming and maintaining positive relationships, and they were given continuous opportunities to practice these skills, which don’t always develop naturally in children with ASD.  “I liked it [the programme] because it was fun and I learned about road safety” says J, aged 11. J’s mum recalled “he’s never gone to anything like this before but he’s really enjoying it”.

As the weeks progressed and topics such as friendships, bullying, managing emotions, stranger danger, and internet safety were explored, it became clear that a real friendship had formed between the boys.  This was clear when they asked to sit together and be in the same groups for activities, which was not a common request for either.  The pair even began to visit each other’s houses after the sessions on Saturday afternoons. “It’s, great, they’re the best of friends.  He comes over and they play for hours” says J's Mum.

Although the Skills for Staying Safe programme aimed to provide the children with a greater awareness of how to stay safe at home and when in the community, the story of J and A is one of the most meaningful outcomes.  Like all children, these boys want to form lasting relationships and enjoy themselves with their friends.