Source: Indys Child Parenting Magazine

Helping Kids with Special Needs Make Friends
Parental advice from the experts

by Carrie Bishop

January 01, 2012

Making friends is important to kids with special needs, though they often have to put more work into developing and maintaining the relationships.

“Friendships are a cornerstone in everyone’s life. We all rely on friendships to get through hard times and celebrate the good times,” said Rita Davis, director of community development for Noble of Indiana. In fact, she said creating environments that help people make friends is a concern of parents and providers like Noble. Davis and others who work with kids with special needs weigh in on how parents can help their child foster friendships.

Focus on the child’s abilities. Dr. Luis Escobar, medical director of medical genetics at Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital at St.Vincent, said parents of kids with special needs often concentrate too much on their child’s disability. “They think they need to be treated differently or as special needs. Those kids need to concentrate on the abilities they have,” he said. A positive outlook is a good first step to positive peer interaction.

Don’t limit the child. Escobar said involvement is one of the biggest issues kids with special needs face. They often feel there are things they cannot do. Parents keep them involved. There are a great number of adaptive sports and after-school programs and camps from which they can choose. Then as kids get involved, don’t restrict them.

Learn about the program. Before signing a child up for a program or activity, investigate it and be comfortable with it. Make sure staff understand your child’s needs and are equipped to provide a safe, positive environment for the child. “We work hard to make sure our staff are looking out for kids. They are always looking for situations where they might need to help our or influence kids to make sure the whole group is involved and integrated,” said Tim Nowak, program director for Jameson Camp.

Talk openly with the child. Cecille Domingo, director of therapeutic recreation for Camp Riley at Bradford Woods, said parents can help their child with special needs develop friendships through education and communication. Help the child understand his difficulty in cultivating relationships with peers may not be his fault. Let the child know that sometimes differences scare people people and to make sure he knows it’s not a bad thing he has a disability.

Educate other kids. Domingo also advises parents and kids to educate others. She tells of a girl in a wheelchair who makes a point to greet other children and to let them know that she is in a wheelchair and it is what she uses to get around. She helps other kids see that the wheelchair is not scary.

Build on the child’s interests. Understand what interests him and connect with other kids who share the same interest. “If you have a child with autism, for example, who excels at art, it’s a very good thing to get that child into an inclusive art class where he might be able to make friends with kids with regular abilities who share the same hobby or interest,” advised Davis. Not only will this create a bridge for social interaction for the child, it will help cultivate an environment of understanding and acceptance for all the participants.

Set up playdates. Susan Le Vay, director and co-founder of the Independence Academy of Indiana, advises parents to organize time for their child to get together with other kids with special needs outside more organized activities to enjoy time together. “Parents should plan on playing a hands-on role during that time together to ensure that a friend's visit goes well. To prepare for having a friend over, parents can prime the pump by creating and reading a variety of social stories with their children that will highlight expected behaviors during a visit from a friend. Social stories can address anything from remembering to take turns with a favored activity, to sharing a snack, to taking a short break in a quiet spot in the house if the time together becomes overwhelming,” she said.

Connect with other kids who have special needs. Just like typical kids, Le Vay said kids with special needs enjoy having friends who are kindred spirits, especially as they get older and become more aware of themselves. “Getting involved in a social group that supports older students with special needs can be a great way to help an adolescent find and make friends,” she said. Seek out groups that include kids with special needs in a supportive and positive way such as Special Olympics, Power Kids, Best Buddies, and social skills groups.

Be an involved parent. Davis also thinks it’s a good idea for parents to be involved in their child’s activities so they can help guide the kids to appreciate each other’s gifts, whether it’s with the Scouts or sports or other activity.