By Guest Blogger Nancy Micca
Every parent of a child with special needs will tell you that cultivating opportunities for their child to experience friendship can be one of their greatest challenges. We all want our children to be included, have positive social interactions, and feel valued for who they are. To see your child feel isolated, or worse, rejected, is an incredibly painful experience.
As a mom of four grown children, one of whom has special needs, I know these challenges well. In addition to my most important role of ‘mom’, I also serve as the Executive Director for the Family Support Network of Central Carolina, a nonprofit organization that serves families who experience a NICU stay or have a child with special needs. Utilizing my years of observation and experience, I would love to offer the following tips as you encourage your children to befriend a peer with special needs:
- UNDERSTAND THE BENEFITS: Having a family member or friend with special needs teaches us countless invaluable lessons about the power of love, the importance of compassion, the perspective of what really matters, and the value of understanding others, despite their differences. I guarantee you, the lessons you and your child will learn from both a child with special needs and their parent(s) will inform and change you for the better.
- MODEL: Are YOU comfortable interacting with families you meet who have a child with special needs? Our kids learn so much from watching us. I would encourage parents to make the first move and reach out to families you know who have a child with special needs. Include these families in your playdates and other opportunities for social interaction. I can assure you the parent of the child with special needs is eager to have a conversation about their child and a chance to expand their horizons. When interacting with someone with special needs, always speak directly to the person first without directing your questions solely to the parent or caregiver. This includes getting within the person’s line of sight and may include the need to allow extra time for a response.
- EDUCATE: From a very early age, look for books for your children that include characters with special needs. Talk about the differences your child observes and reiterate the character’s strengths… ‘look at their beautiful smile’, ‘see how they’re playing well with their friends?’ Does your child have a neighbor or classmate with a specific condition? Perhaps they have a friend who has a sibling with special needs? Take some time to read up together about the diagnosis. Perhaps you can Google an adult with the same disability to hear from them directly about their experience. Listen and learn!
- COMMUNICATE: Establish open communication with your children and encourage their curiosity about differences and similarities. Keep your conversations age-appropriate and simple. For example, teach them about different communication styles. Whether their friends communicate with spoken words, sign language, picture boards, or communication devices, we are all communicating. Just because a person cannot speak audibly does not mean they don’t have a way to express themselves. Ask your child’s teacher or the parent for additional ways you can help the child with special needs feel more included in the classroom and beyond.
- ADVOCATE: Unfortunately, children with special needs are more likely to be bullied, teased, or isolated. Your child may witness this unfairness and not know how to help or remain silent. Teach your child some techniques for combating bullying and reiterate that they can communicate with you if they ever need help advocating for their peer.
- SUPPORT: Frequent and support local businesses that employ individuals with special needs. A few favorites here in the Triad include Chez Genese, A Special Blend, Peacehaven Community Farm (they offer a wonderful CSA program), and ArcBarks. Not only does this provide an opportunity to support these wonderful programs financially, but it also provides an opportunity for interaction with the incredible staff.
- INCLUDE: As our children age, being left out of group activities or friendships can become a common occurrence. If your child is in a club or activity with a peer who has special needs, consider inviting them on an outing or to your home. As parents of children with special needs, we spend countless hours trying to create opportunities for our children and we would welcome someone reaching out to offer an invitation.
If our typically developing kids learn from a young age to understand the value of diversity and inclusion, they will likely become more mature, compassionate adults. The benefits of befriending peers with special needs are unending. As parents, it’s vital we seek opportunities to promote and steward these relationships for our children and for ourselves.
- “Embracing Inclusion: Helping Kids Make Friends with People Who Are Different” by Metro Magazine
- “The Importance of Inclusion and Community for Children with Special Needs” by Day to Day Parenting
- “60 Books about Disabilities and Differences for Kids” by Mrs. Dr’s Corner
- “Andy and His Yellow Frisbee” by Mary Thompson
- “Dan and Diesel” by Charlotte Hudson
- “Susan Laughs” by Jeanne Willis
- “You Can Be a Friend” by Ron Mazellan
- “It’s Okay to Be Different” by Todd Parr
For more blogs on children with special needs, click here.
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