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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Cost: varies

Where:
Spiritual Twist Productions
1250 Aversboro Road
Garner, NC  27529
View map »


Sponsor: Spiritual Twist Productions
Telephone: 919-977-1976
Contact Name: Kathy MacDonald
Website »

More information

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Forget tourist-filled museums, make your own memories with a photo scavenger hunt tour in Raleigh! On a Let’s Roam scavenger hunt, you and your team will work together to wander throughout...

Cost: $11

Where:
500 S Salisbury St
raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Sponsor: Let's Roam
Website »

More information

Amongst the ancient oak trees is the heart of Raleigh. We'll help you see the forest for the trees and all its magic splendor. Tourist, local, or new to town, this is a lively small group activity...

Cost: $11

Where:
Downtown
500 S Salisbury St
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Sponsor: Let's Roam
Telephone: 833-202-7626
Contact Name: Kelly
Website »

More information

Join us for the Kids Exchange Spring/Summer Consignment Sale in February!   This FREE ADMISSION event is the largest kids consignment sale in the nation and is held at the NC State Fairgrounds...

Cost: Free

Where:
Jim Graham Building
1025 Blue Ridge Road
Raleigh, NC  27607
View map »

More information

Kindermusik is a research-based early childhood curriculum that includes 45-minute classroom lessons with materials and resources that encourages parental involvement . Research has linked...

Cost: $70/month

Where:
Hope Community Building
2080 E Williams St
Hope Community Building, Fuquay Varina Room
Apex/Holly Springs, NC  27539
View map »


Telephone: 191-990-25432
Contact Name: Leigh Hamm
Website »

More information

Just in time to keep up with those home improvement resolutions for 2020, the Downtown Raleigh Home Show returns to downtown’s Raleigh Convention Center January 24-26, 2020  with a jam-packed...

Cost: Tickets are $12 for adults and free for children under 12. Advance $9 tickets

Where:
Raleigh Convention Center
500 S. Salisbury St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Sponsor: Marketplace Events
Telephone: 904-608-3823
Contact Name: Liz Morgan

More information

Chip, chip, hooray! The first Zambrero in the Southeast is opening on January 24 with zingy, zesty activities! Bodacious Burritos and Bowls: $5 burritos and bowls all day Delicious Drawing: A...

Cost: Free

Where:
1 Glenwood Ave
#105
Raleigh, NC  27603
View map »


Telephone: (919) 863-2561
Website »

More information

Skate on an ice trail or free skate on 17,000 sq. ft of ice. Located in the Upper Pond of the Whitewater Center, the skating environment features three distinct programming areas and an on-ice...

Cost: 20

Where:
USNWC
5000 Whitewater Center Pkwy
Charlotte, NC  28214
View map »


Sponsor: USNWC
Telephone: 704-391-3900
Website »

More information

Lights is a half-mile walking trail that leads viewers through a series of immersive light installations featuring  honeycombs, vines, crystals, and other natural features integrated into the...

Cost: Free

Where:
USNWC
5000 Whitewater Center Pkwy
Charlotte, NC  28214
View map »


Sponsor: USNWC
Telephone: 704-391-3900
Website »

More information

Sign up for a Raleigh scavenger hunt and put on your best Nick Cage impression as you seek out the national treasures hidden in Raleigh. Via an app, be guided through the cultural, historical,...

Cost: See website for fees

Where:
Downtown Raleigh
500 S. Salisbury St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Sponsor: LetsRoam!
Telephone: 833-202-7626
Contact Name: LetsRoam!
Website »

More information

Triangle Restaurant Week (January 20-26, 2020) is a week-long celebration of culinary excellence designed to incorporate the premier Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill and surrounding area restaurants....

Cost: $15-$35

Where:
Participating Restaurants
, NC


Sponsor: Triangle Blvd
Telephone: 919-673-5784
Website »

More information

Take a hike after dark and enjoy the sights and sounds of a quiet night along the American Tobacco Trail. We will walk to the Beaver Creek bridge and back (about one mile total). Free for ages 4...

Cost: Free

Where:
American Tobacco Trail
1309 New Hill-Olive Chapel Rd.
Apex, NC  27502
View map »


Sponsor: Harris Lake County Park and the American Tobacco Trail
Telephone: 919-387-4342
Contact Name: Joanne St. Clair
Website »

More information

Hounded by Death, the character of Everybody desperately seeks out everyone and everything they know in hope of finding something meaningful to take to the grave. These 90 minutes of theatrical...

Cost: Ticket prices start at $15

Where:
PlayMakers' Repertory Company
120 Country Club Rd
Chapel Hill, NC  27599
View map »


Telephone: 919-962-7529

More information

Rumpelstiltskin-A Tale of Gold Book by Ellie FaggionMusic and Lyrics written by Brian Shrager and Ellie FaggionProduced by special arrangement with the author.Directed by Beth Wilson...

Cost: varies

Where:
Spiritual Twist Productions
1250 Aversboro Road
Garner, NC  27529
View map »


Sponsor: Spiritual Twist Productions
Telephone: 919-977-1976
Contact Name: Kathy MacDonald
Website »

More information

David Burney, lead singer for the acclaimed Johnny Cash tribute band Johnny Folsom 4, brings his one-man show to The ArtsCenter for three shows, January 24-26, 2020.  In “Hello, I’m...

Cost: $15 to $20

Where:
The ArtsCenter
300-G East Main St.
300-G East Main Street.
Carrboro, NC  27510
View map »


Sponsor: The ArtsCenter
Telephone: 919-929-2787
Contact Name: Patrick Phelps-Mckeown
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Forget tourist-filled museums, make your own memories with a photo scavenger hunt tour in Raleigh! On a Let’s Roam scavenger hunt, you and your team will work together to wander throughout...

Cost: $11

Where:
500 S Salisbury St
raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Sponsor: Let's Roam
Website »

More information

Amongst the ancient oak trees is the heart of Raleigh. We'll help you see the forest for the trees and all its magic splendor. Tourist, local, or new to town, this is a lively small group activity...

Cost: $11

Where:
Downtown
500 S Salisbury St
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Sponsor: Let's Roam
Telephone: 833-202-7626
Contact Name: Kelly
Website »

More information

Join us for the Kids Exchange Spring/Summer Consignment Sale in February!   This FREE ADMISSION event is the largest kids consignment sale in the nation and is held at the NC State Fairgrounds...

Cost: Free

Where:
Jim Graham Building
1025 Blue Ridge Road
Raleigh, NC  27607
View map »

More information

Join the Museum and the Raleigh Astronomy Club to help you see the big picture — of the Universe! From comet crafts to solar observing, lectures to rocket launches, space enthusiasts of all ages...

Cost: Free

Where:
NC Museum of Natural Sciences
11 W. Jones St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Website »

More information

Kindermusik is a research-based early childhood curriculum that includes 45-minute classroom lessons with materials and resources that encourages parental involvement . Research has linked...

Cost: $70/month

Where:
Hope Community Building
2080 E Williams St
Hope Community Building, Fuquay Varina Room
Apex/Holly Springs, NC  27539
View map »


Telephone: 191-990-25432
Contact Name: Leigh Hamm
Website »

More information

Family Wildlife Series: Tricky Tracks Saturday, January 25 10-11 a.m. Come dressed for the weather so you can roam the park learning the fine art of “tracking”.   Make a cast of an animal...

Cost: Free

Where:
Blue Jay Point County Park
3200 Pleasant Union Church Road
Raleigh, NC  27614
View map »


Telephone: 919-870-4330
Website »

More information

RALEIGH (Jan. 16, 2020) – The North Carolina Association for Public Charter Schools will host its first school fair during National School Choice Week on Saturday, Jan. 25. The fair will take...

Cost: Free

Where:
Raleigh Convention Center
500 S. Salisbury Street
Raleigh, NC  27610
View map »


Sponsor: NC Association of Public Charter Schools
Telephone: 336-669-9996
Contact Name: Rhonda Dillingham
Website »

More information

Just in time to keep up with those home improvement resolutions for 2020, the Downtown Raleigh Home Show returns to downtown’s Raleigh Convention Center January 24-26, 2020  with a jam-packed...

Cost: Tickets are $12 for adults and free for children under 12. Advance $9 tickets

Where:
Raleigh Convention Center
500 S. Salisbury St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Sponsor: Marketplace Events
Telephone: 904-608-3823
Contact Name: Liz Morgan

More information

Lights is a half-mile walking trail that leads viewers through a series of immersive light installations featuring  honeycombs, vines, crystals, and other natural features integrated into the...

Cost: Free

Where:
USNWC
5000 Whitewater Center Pkwy
Charlotte, NC  28214
View map »


Sponsor: USNWC
Telephone: 704-391-3900
Website »

More information

Skate on an ice trail or free skate on 17,000 sq. ft of ice. Located in the Upper Pond of the Whitewater Center, the skating environment features three distinct programming areas and an on-ice...

Cost: 20

Where:
USNWC
5000 Whitewater Center Pkwy
Charlotte, NC  28214
View map »


Sponsor: USNWC
Telephone: 704-391-3900
Website »

More information

Sign up for a Raleigh scavenger hunt and put on your best Nick Cage impression as you seek out the national treasures hidden in Raleigh. Via an app, be guided through the cultural, historical,...

Cost: See website for fees

Where:
Downtown Raleigh
500 S. Salisbury St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Sponsor: LetsRoam!
Telephone: 833-202-7626
Contact Name: LetsRoam!
Website »

More information

Spanish Alive is providing Family Spanish classes starting in January! Join us to learn Spanish as an entire family in an immersive, fun environment. Our teachers are trained Spanish educators and...

Cost: $75-$216

Where:
Spanish Alive
156 E. Chatham St
Cary, NC
View map »


Website »

More information

Rumpelstiltskin-A Tale of Gold Book by Ellie FaggionMusic and Lyrics written by Brian Shrager and Ellie FaggionProduced by special arrangement with the author.Directed by Beth Wilson...

Cost: varies

Where:
Spiritual Twist Productions
1250 Aversboro Road
Garner, NC  27529
View map »


Sponsor: Spiritual Twist Productions
Telephone: 919-977-1976
Contact Name: Kathy MacDonald
Website »

More information

Winter days find many animals curled up in their dens. They sleep warmly, awakening in spring ready to enjoy the renewed Earth. Discover how animals deal with cold weather and which ones hibernate...

Cost: For all ages; FREE. Registration is required for all family members,& childre

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
Raleigh, NC  27603
View map »


Telephone: 919-856-6675
Website »

More information

Triangle Restaurant Week (January 20-26, 2020) is a week-long celebration of culinary excellence designed to incorporate the premier Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill and surrounding area restaurants....

Cost: $15-$35

Where:
Participating Restaurants
, NC


Sponsor: Triangle Blvd
Telephone: 919-673-5784
Website »

More information

Join us in Arendelle for Frozen-inspired STEAM activities for the whole family! Included in the ticket cost is dinner and dessert for the whole family, make your own sock Olaf and Frozen bouncy...

Cost: $35 per family

Where:
Kidzu Children's Museum
201 S. Estes Dr.
Chapel Hill, NC  27514
View map »


Sponsor: Kidzu Children's Museum
Telephone: 919-933-1455
Website »

More information

AML Wrestling presents our 5th Anniversary Celebration! WHEN: Saturday, January 25th, 2020WHERE: Winston-Salem Fairgrounds in theHome & Garden Building 408 27th Street NW/Gate #9 Winston-Salem, NC...

Cost: $5

Where:
Winston-Salem Fairgrounds
408 27th Street NW/Gate #9
Winston-Salem, NC  27105
View map »


Sponsor: AML Wrestling
Telephone: 336-831-0646
Contact Name: Tracy Myers
Website »

More information

Hounded by Death, the character of Everybody desperately seeks out everyone and everything they know in hope of finding something meaningful to take to the grave. These 90 minutes of theatrical...

Cost: Ticket prices start at $15

Where:
PlayMakers' Repertory Company
120 Country Club Rd
Chapel Hill, NC  27599
View map »


Telephone: 919-962-7529

More information

David Burney, lead singer for the acclaimed Johnny Cash tribute band Johnny Folsom 4, brings his one-man show to The ArtsCenter for three shows, January 24-26, 2020.  In “Hello, I’m...

Cost: $15 to $20

Where:
The ArtsCenter
300-G East Main St.
300-G East Main Street.
Carrboro, NC  27510
View map »


Sponsor: The ArtsCenter
Telephone: 919-929-2787
Contact Name: Patrick Phelps-Mckeown
Website »

More information

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Education Guide

The 2019-20 Education Guide offers 718 education resources in the Triangle, including area preschools, private schools, public school systems, charter schools, boarding schools and academic resources.

The Triangle Go-To Guide

Our Triangle Go-To Guide connects you to family fun resources across the Triangle. In our 2019-20 issue, explore 1,028 resources for family fun.