At my daughter’s sixth birthday party, I smiled as I watched her introduce her friend Jackson—whom she had known since she was a toddler—to her new friends from school. Within a few minutes, Jackson was happily playing with blocks while the other kids played racecars nearby. When I noticed that the noise level was starting to make Jackson agitated, I helped him move the blocks to a quieter room and encouraged Laurel to play with him.
When Jackson was diagnosed with autism a few years earlier, I worried about how I would explain it to Laurel. I decided to follow Laurel’s lead and wait for a good opportunity to arise. One day she asked why Jackson didn’t talk to her like her other friends. I explained to her that different things were harder for some people than others, and that talking to people and making friends was harder for Jackson than it was for her. Throughout the years, Jackson’s mother and I had often commented about how much both of our children enjoyed the time they spent together despite their different communication styles.
Both children benefit
When children with special needs and typically developing children become friends at school, church, or through afterschool activities, both children benefit from the friendship. When parents notice the friendship blooming, they should encourage it as they would any other childhood friendship, by setting up play dates and getting the children together outside of school.
If you have any questions, be sure to ask questions of the parent with the special needs child. Most parents are happy to explain their child’s issues and welcome the opportunity to provide information.
Children often notice differences less than adults. “Fostering new and diverse friendships may seem a bit scary, but the truth is that children (both kids and teens) are so much more accepting than we think,” says Dr. Peter Faustino, President-elect of the New York Association of School Psychologists (NYASP).
Kaye Haas remembers how her son, Tim, who has Down Syndrome, would help comfort his typically developing friends on the school bus when they were sad. When one of his friends was sick, he would make a get-well card, and he always remembered his friends’ birthdays. Through the years, Kaye has noticed how much confidence her son has gained through his friendships, and how much he enjoys the time spent with friends.
Encourage the kids to bond over common interests, such as sports, books, and more —>
Focus on the similarities
Parents of typically developing children often wonder how to explain their friend’s special needs to their child. Focus on the similarities between the two children instead of the differences. Answer any questions in a factual and age-appropriate way.
Encourage the kids to bond over common interests, such as sports, books, music, and games. If an activity is going to be challenging for the special needs child, steer the children to an activity in which both kids can participate. Many parents are surprised at how naturally the kids bond and select activities that interest them both.
A few years ago, Kaitlynn—a young girl who used a wheelchair—joined a 4H club. At first the other children were apprehensive because they did not understand the wheelchair and how it worked. They were curious about Kaitlynn’s condition and why she needed the wheelchair. Kaitlynn’s mother shared information about her daughter’s health and showed the kids how the wheelchair worked. The other children quickly became comfortable and spent a lot of time with Kaitlynn at the club’s events.
A great way to encourage friendships between children of all abilities is to have the children get together outside of school or their organized activities.
Barbara Boroson, a licensed master’s-level social worker and mother of a child on the autism spectrum, suggests that parents of both typically developing children and special needs children role play with their children before the play date. “Take a few minutes to guide her toward considering her friend’s interests, hobbies, likes, and dislikes,” says Boroson.
Talk to the parents of the special needs child before the play date to see if they have any suggestions that may help the play date go smoothly, such as certain activities the child may enjoy. Be sure to ask about any allergies or medical conditions that you should be aware of.
Boroson says that sharing can often be an issue for younger children during play dates. “Some children with special needs keep very careful track of certain toys and accessories and cannot tolerate anyone touching, moving, or changing them,” says Boroson. “Before another child comes to play, it can be helpful to suggest that your child put away any toys he feels he cannot share, and make him aware that any toys he leaves out must be shared fully.”
If the play date does not go as planned, remember play dates with two typically developing children do not always go smoothly either. Brainstorm with the other parent about ideas to help the next play date go better, such as meeting at a quieter location or meeting at a different time of day.
Haas encourages parents of both special needs and typically developing children to encourage friendships between their children. “The friends that Tim has made through the years have made his life whole. His friends have brought so much joy to his life.”
Jennifer Gregory is a professional writer for various magazines, newspapers, and websites. She has two children.
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