Help Your Child With Special Needs Navigate New Friendships


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Cary mom Teri Smith remembers the incident at the playground like it was yesterday. Her middle son, who has ADD and impulse control disorder, was running past another boy and unknowingly bumped into him. "I was about to jump up and apologize for him," Smith says. "But then the other boy's mom yelled at my son, 'Jerk!'"

Although today she graciously gives that mom a pass — understanding she was just reacting to the situation — when it happened Smith took her son and left the park, even though they'd come to play with the other kids.

Parents of children with special needs sometimes find themselves in Smith's shoes, walking the line between helping their children interact with other kids and form meaningful friendships while also handling any negative reactions. After all, kids notice people who look or act differently, and sometimes they aren't as quick to reach out to their peers with disabilities.

How can you help your child develop strong friendships and handle negative interactions, all while giving her the independence to make her own way confidently?

Believe it's possible

The first step is to understand that every kid can make a friend, no matter what, says Aron Hall, director of programs for the National Inclusion Project.

"Start with that expectation firmly in your mind," Hall advises. "Doesn't mean every kid will easily make friends, but when you believe he can, you'll create intentional scenarios where kids are connecting and moving beyond their differences."

Hall suggests actively giving your child the opportunity to make friends. You can't expect people to come knocking on your door, seeking out your child for friendship, he explains. That's not going to happen whether your child has special needs or not. Take the initiative by inviting kids to your house, Hall says.

"Sometimes other parents might not feel equipped to have your child visit their home without you at first," he says. "So plan family outings, or maybe a cookout or bubble party, or whatever you like. Just make that effort to help introduce your child to other kids." Plan regular outings where your child has the chance to interact with other kids, such as at the park, on play dates or in organized programs.

Put it in context

Also keep in mind what friendship means to kids of different ages. For the very young set, "parallel play," where kids play near each other but don't necessarily interact with one another, is usually the most you'll get.

For early elementary kids, "best friend" status is often applied to any child who's there throughout the day — even if that changes from week to week. So don't worry if your child doesn't reach "BFF" status with another child immediately. Sometimes it's more about kids' developmental milestones than any differences.

Hall cautions against pushing too hard, however. If kids just don't click, don't keep trying to make it happen. "I'm a big believer that friendship just for the sake of friendship rarely works out in a long, sustainable way," he says. If there's no connection there, it could just be because the kids aren't a good fit for each other.

Seek shared interests

As with most friendships, shared interests bring kids together. "My son loves history and presidents and can talk about them for hours," Smith says. "Sometimes kids who had similar interests would be impressed and be more friendly with him."

When kids are doing something they both like together, it helps friendships grow organically. Kids are more likely to see the similarities between each other — "We both love chess," or "We both throw left-handed," for example — if they're actively engaged in a favorite activity. Any differences quietly drop to the background.

"Playing creates a natural opportunity for kids to shine," Hall says. "You quickly see others' strengths, you connect, you laugh, and you find yourself becoming friends with that other person."

Prep for success

You can help your child plan to meet new kids by giving him a quick coaching session, says Garner mom Wanda McCann. Her son has high-functioning autism, and when he was younger she'd gently give him tips before meeting new people.

"I'd just say, 'Remember eye contact,' or 'It's polite to shake their hands,'" McCann says.

As her son got older, she'd also suggest which topics were appropriate to discuss. "With autism, sometimes it was easy for him to get locked into only the topics that interested him, so I'd remind him which topics were OK to say around family, which were OK with a broader circle like coaches and teachers, and which others were fine for an even broader circle like strangers or new friends."

Smooth the bumps

Any child — one with special needs or a more typically developing peer — will have times when friendships get rocky. And while you can't fix every single trouble your child faces, you can help navigate the rough waters.

It was tough when McCann's son, for example, told her his awareness of others' perceptions of him.

"He said, 'I don't feel like I'm different. The only time I feel different is when I see it in the face of other people. Then I realize they see me as different,'" she says.

But what if it's more than just a feeling? What if there is outright ostracizing or bullying? It's a lesson every kid learns, Hall says.

"You can just be honest and say, 'Hey, not everyone we're going to be around is going to be nice. Not everyone is going to understand who we are or what we like to do,'" Hall says.

Smith gives her son words to articulate what he's feeling. "I'll say, 'I can see you're jealous because your friends are playing together and not including you,'" she says. "It gives him validation for normal feelings."

Parents can also focus on successes. "Try pointing out positive experiences as they're happening," Hall adds. "Catch them having fun, smiling or connecting with the other kid. That will give you reference points to look back on and say, 'Yes, that hurt when they said that to you, but remember when you were coming down the slide and laughing?' That way they can still pull a positive out of the entire experience and it's not a complete bust."

Don't give up if you have a bad experience, either. "If you go out once, have a negative exposure, and never go out again, you don't have the possibility of a positive experience," Hall says. "Continue to go out, and if something negative happens more than once at the same place, go to a different place. You'll find the right people for you."

Kathleen M. Reilly is a writer and author living in Raleigh with her husband and sons.

Reaching out a helping hand

Growing up with cerebral palsy, S. Barton Cutter has had first-hand experience with what it's like to be different from the other kids and the challenges of trying to make friends. "[My speech] can be difficult to understand at times and, growing up, I found other children didn't always have the patience needed to understand me," he says.

Today, Cutter is a Raleigh-based professional coach, writer and mentor. He offers other people with disabilities what he didn't have as a child: a role model.

"When I was young, I didn't really have one mentor or role model," he says. "While there were people I looked up to, like several tutors and such who helped me find my voice in writing, none of them had direct experience of living with a disability."

Because of the lack of guidance, Cutter felt that he had to find his own way through many situations. It wasn't until he was in college that he met someone, a martial arts teacher, with a disability. "For the first time, I felt as though I could talk to someone who had gone through many of the same experiences I had," he says.

Cutter now draws from his lifetime of experience and encourages others to look beyond their limitations. He shows his clients how to ditch their doubts and perceived restrictions — no matter how big — and to understand they can gain strength and confidently reach for their dreams.

Cutter emphasizes the importance of helping kids with disabilities find their confidence and express who they are, embracing their uniqueness and living their lives with confidence and joy.

How can you help your child find her way? Cutter suggests helping kids identify their passions and interests. "Have them learn as much as they can about it," Cutter says. "In learning about something they care about, they also learn about themselves and discover that this area of interest gives them a way to participate."

What if their interest involves something that makes you nervous, such as horseback riding? That's perfectly OK, too, Cutter says. "Sometimes it can be difficult for parents to let their kids try new things, especially if there is a disability involved," he says. "But allowing kids the opportunity to explore their world gives a sense of personal freedom that's invaluable."

— Kathleen M. Reilly

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