Special Needs, Special Support
“The greatest healing therapy is friendship and love.” ~ Hubert H. Humphrey
For my son Ty, who has Down’s Syndrome, it was one of the most satisfying days of his life – and mine.
I’ll never forget the day he got to meet Chris and Camden, my best friend’s sons. My son had been through so much in the previous months, watching his father go through a long illness, losing his father, and then leaving everything behind to move across the country. In a short time, his entire life changed, and he was struggling to cope. Violent meltdowns became routine with Ty, and it was a little terrifying to drive from Florida to Pennsylvania to visit my best friend. But I needed this, and I thought he needed it, too, so off we went on a two-day drive to Pennsylvania.
At first, Ty was a little shy. But Chris and Camden, they just jumped right in and welcomed him. Despite their differences, they talked to him, played with him, watched movies with him…they just loved him.
In no time, the boys were sharing their room with him. They wanted to keep Ty forever, and he wanted to stay forever. For the first time in months, I watched that cloud of sadness and grief disappear from my son. Their friendship – their love – was helping him heal.
Our days in Pennsylvania were gone too fast, and we headed back to Florida. We’d barely arrived and Ty was missing his buddies. He was begging to go back. My best friend, Liz, was begging us to come back. And the boys – well, they’d already made their position clear – they wanted Ty for a brother.
I realized how important these friendships were to my son. Friendship was helping my son heal, enhancing his life, giving him a larger circle of people who he knew cared for him. And so, just a month later, we made the huge move from Florida to Pennsylvania. When we arrived, Ty flew in the door, giving hugs to everyone, excited to be back with his friends – his brothers.
As humans, we crave friends – people with whom we can interact and share our emotions. And it’s no different for kids with special needs. They long for inclusion, interaction, and people who care unconditionally. It’s completely normal for kids to want friends, but for kids with special needs, finding meaningful friendships can be tough. With help from parents and caregivers, kids can overcome the challenges that come with special needs, building solid friendships that last a lifetime.
Challenges to Building Friendships
Friendship development must be a priority for your special needs child, and while it sounds simple, it’s often tough for parents to find the time to help their child build friendships because of the demands that come with parenting a child with special needs. Parents of children with special needs often deal with additional time demands, including therapies, doctor’s appointments, and the time spent on daily care. This makes it easy to put off scheduling social activities and play dates for kids. Some of the other challenges children with special needs face when trying to build friendships include:
- Lack of Opportunity – Kids with special needs may have limited chances to interact with others, particularly if they’re in special education classes with few other people. This lack of opportunity often leads to isolation, increasing the risk of depression.
- Difficulty Communicating – Some children with special needs, like my son, have difficulty communicating, making it tough to make new friends.
- Little Support – In some cases, there’s little support to help kids with special needs get involved with social activities. Some children will need assistance or even assistive devices to make it possible to socialize and build friendships.
- Different Ways of Relating – Children with disabilities often express themselves differently, which may become a barrier to making friends. Kids that have difficulty with motor output or sensory processing often have the inability to emote or respond in the same way as others, but it doesn’t mean they lack empathy, although it’s often interpreted that way.
- Sensory Overload – Sensory overload is a challenge for many kids with special needs. Too much stimulation at one time can result in overload, which may lead to meltdowns or other behavioral challenges.
- Low Self-Esteem – Low self-esteem is a common problem among children dealing with special needs, and they often worry about how other people see them. This may make them draw away from others instead of reaching out to build friendships.
The Benefits of Friendships for Your Special Needs Child
While there are challenges to overcome, friendships are essential to your child’s overall wellbeing. Friendships offer physical, emotional, and psychological benefits, including:
- Benefit #1 – Teaches Essential Life Skills – Key developmental changes are taking place when children are young, even in children who have disabilities. Friendships can help start the learning process and give kids important life skills they need to succeed.
- Benefit #2 – Reduces the Risk of Depression and Bullying – The risk of depression is high in kids with Asperger’s, autism, and other special needs. They often deal with teasing that makes depression worse, since they’re often alone. Building a friendship lowers the risk of depression and gives them someone to have with them, reducing the risk of bullying.
- Benefit #3 – Encourages Bonding Beyond Family – Peer friendships encourage kids to bond with individuals other than their family members. This widens a child’s social circle, and since kids are usually more likely to model peer behavior, it’s often a positive experience that helps an introverted or shy child develop.
- Benefit #4 – Helps Children Adjust – Friendships, particularly those built with developmentally normal children, can help kids with disabilities better adjust to new experiences and the world around them. My son always had a fear of stairs, and getting him up and down stairs has been a challenge. His friendships with Camden and Chris have helped him overcome this. One of the boys grabs his hand and he takes the stairs in no time now.
- Benefit #5 – Improved Overall Health – Studies have shown that friendships and social support improve overall health, lowering levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, reducing immune problems, and lowering the risk of heart problems.
Other benefits of friendships include:
- Increased sense of belonging
- Improved self-confidence
- Eliminating feelings of loneliness
- Higher happiness levels
- Help coping with traumas
Strategies That Facilitate Friendship Development
The life of a special needs parent is hectic, so you’re going to have to make friendship development a priority. While it may take some time, some work, and even some drastic changes in your life (for me and Ty it took moving), it’s possible to find friends that will enhance the life of your child.
- Strategy #1 – Pay Attention to Your Child’s Interests – Pay attention to your child’s interests, and then capitalize on them. Many friendships begin based upon mutual interests. Does your child love getting active and competing in sports? If so, the Special Olympics may be a great way to meet friends. Many community sports teams, including baseball, basketball, and football teams, have great coaches who are thrilled to welcome kids with special needs to the team, and that team atmosphere is perfect for fostering friendships. The Miracle Project offers a theater program for kids with special needs, which offers a great way for kids that love music and acting to meet others that share their interests.
- Strategy #2 – Teach Your Child How to Be a Friend – Your child may need help learning how to be a good friend. It’s easy to focus on teaching your child other special needs specific skills, failing to teach them the skills they need for developing friendships. Kids may not catch on to the social rules of play, so you may need to talk about those rules and model them to your child. When your child is being a good friend, point out his behavior and celebrate it together.
- Strategy #3 – Invite Peers from School into Your Home – Your child probably feels most comfortable at home, so try inviting peers from school into your home. This allows your child to get to know other people in a familiar environment. Programs like The Friendship Circle are also available, bringing together kids with disabilities and teenage volunteers for some time of friendship and fun. These shared experiences not only empower kids, they enrich the lives of all involved.
- Strategy #4 – Become an Advocate for Inclusion in Schools – When children with disabilities are constantly segregated in special education classes, it limits their chances to build friendships, particularly with children who are developmentally normal. If your child is in school, become an advocate for inclusion in your local schools. More schools are beginning to integrate children with special needs into regular classes, offering a greater opportunity to build relationships. Unfortunately, many schools continue to segregate kids with special needs. Speaking up and advocating for change can make a difference, giving your child more social opportunities while also helping developmentally normal children learn to accept children who may be different.
- Strategy #5 – Don’t Restrict Friendships by Age – Age doesn’t matter when it comes to building friendships, and for kids who have developmental delays, friendships with children their own age may not work out. Experiment with letting your child interact with kids of different ages. Some kids will enjoy a big sister or brother role with a younger child, which gives them a sense of responsibility. Adults or older teens may be more patient with a special needs child that is interested in discussing special interests, while also being more understanding of social blunders. A family friend, aunt, or uncle can become a special mentor and friend as well.
- Strategy #6 – Make Sure Playdates are Successful – If you plan a playdate for your child, make sure that both your child and his new friend have a great experience. If your child can only handle an hour of interaction, don’t schedule a playdate for three hours. For kids that have a tough time socializing or communicating, get started with an activity that allows kids to have fun without a lot of social interaction, such as going to a movie.
- Strategy #7 – Learn to Handle Rejection Yourself – As you work to help your child build friendships, you’re going to run into rejection. Some parents may feel uncomfortable allowing their child to play with yours. In other cases, a playdate with a new person may not go as planned. Sometimes that rejection is tougher on you than it is on your child because it hurts to see them get disappointed when friendships don’t work out. Rejection is discouraging, and you may be tempted to give up. Don’t allow these situations to keep you from helping your child build friendships. You’ll find parents who can look past your child’s disability, encouraging their child to build a bond with your child. You will find other people who value your child for who he is. Stay strong and keep looking for friendship opportunities wherever they show up.
I love spending time with my son. I love to hang out with him. I love laughing with him. We’re more than mother and son – we’re the best of friends. But Ty, he needs more than just me in his life. He needs to know there are other people who love him. He needs other bonds, other friends, to help him learn and grow.
Chris and Camden, they’ve given him such a gift by building friendships with him. And their baby brother, Remi, he’s become a special buddy of Ty’s, too. Seeing the growth, the positive changes, and the healing in my son is beautiful, and I’m grateful for these friendships in his life.
When I talked to Chris and Camden about their friendship with Ty, I admit, they made me tear up a bit. For Chris, the older of the two, the bond of friendship took a bit longer to develop. He told me, “At first it took a little time to warm up to him (Ty), but in the end, I got to know him a little better and we became great buddies.” And when I recently ended up in the hospital, it was Chris who would sit with Ty when he was crying because he missed me and was worried because I was gone.
For Camden and Ty, there was an instant bond. They just clicked. “I warmed up to Ty immediately because he was really nice to me, and now, Ty is family.” Camden has been the one to teach Ty new things, like helping him learn how to play video games. And these are the two you’ll find snuggled up together watching a movie and just hanging out at the end of the day.
In the past few months, these kids have become more than just friends. They’ve become brothers. I really think Mencius said it best, “Friends are the siblings God never gave us.” And I’m pretty sure even God smiled the day these three became friends!