Want to know how to help your child build friendships with peers who have special needs? In an increasingly diverse society, common questions arise about how to help children navigate difference with sensitivity and understanding. One consideration is how to help your child navigate a friendship with a peer who has special needs.
It is inevitable that your child will have a classmate or peer with a disability at some point in their lives. You can encourage your child to learn more about their friends who have disabilities, instead of being afraid. In this article, I share a few guidelines to help children befriend their peers in a healthy, sensitive manner.
As the founder of Innovative Youth Care with a Masters in Psychology, I have matched 150 families with high quality nannies in four years. In the process, I learned the dynamics of family homes and the science-backed research that helps children grow to be well-adjusted adults. Every child is unique and a disability is only one characteristic of a child; every disability impacts a child’s life in a different way. Below are some considerations to help your child remember:
First, “disability” is a very broad term. Some of them are obvious and some are not. Children with physical disabilities, who may use wheelchairs or have other impairments that are obvious through the use of devices are different than children who may have hidden disabilities such as learning disabilities or mental health disorders such as ASD or ADHD.
Second, every child wants friends and wants to be accepted, respected, and included. Help your child understand that nobody is the same and some disabilities are just more noticeable than others. Teach your children that a disability is only somebody’s circumstance and we should support our peers, regardless of their circumstances.
Third, every child should have the opportunity to play with their peers outside of school because that’s how we build relationships and learn how to be social. You can help them feel included by talking with your child about how to build friendships in a sensitive manner (guide below). Have a conversation with your children, no matter their age. Studies indicate that children with a disability are often the recipients of bullying, due to lack of understanding.
Fourth, address the severity of bullying with your child. Explain what bullying is and how to identify it. Open the conversation with them and encourage dialogue. This will help lay a foundation for healthy interaction with peers from a young age.
If your child has peers with special needs, here are 4 guidelines to help them play together smoothly.
1. Be patient. Help your child say hello first. If your child sees a friend needing help, offer to help by asking, “can I help you with that?”. If the friend is being left out, offer to include them in the activity, even if they are shy at first.
2. Keep it simple. A child with ASD or other common mental health disorders have very “matter of fact” mental comprehension. Metaphors like “apple of my eye” would be more confusing than “you are my favorite friend.” While children are typically funny and goofy, sarcasm or jokes can create distraction and confusion for a child with special needs.
3. Be respectful of touch. Many children with special needs or disabilities may not be comfortable with common greeting practices such as hugging, hand shaking, or over-excitement and appropriate groping. So, help your child not be as physical. Instead, encourage them to make eye contact and over time, ask questions to learn what their friend is comfortable with.
4. Suggest specific things to do. Give options when getting ideas for activities. During a playdate, when trying to elicit ideas about what to do, ask questions. For example, your child can ask, “If we read a book, what would you like to read about?” or, “If we play a board game, which game would you like to play, LIFE or Chutes and Ladders?