When a parent or caregiver receives a diagnosis for their child, a myriad of thoughts, hopes, dreams and fears flood that parents mind. The medical and financial costs, the emotional turmoil and trauma that comes with navigating medical and mental health scare systems, and the educational battles that come along with a special needs diagnosis are a part of it. Additionally, parents start to wonder about some of the smaller milestones and goals. A parents might ask, “Will my child have friends?”
It is important for kids to have friends. This is true for kids with special needs, and true for typical children as well. Moreover, its important for kids to have all kinds of friends. It is beneficial for your special needs child to have some friends with disabilities, and some friends who do not have the same challenges. And for more typical children, being friends with different types of kids, with different types of needs, helps to grow their empathy and awareness for their fellow people.
Friendships are challenges for many children, and for kids with special needs, they may have additional challenges such as social emotional struggles that impair their ability to recognize some of the social cues that kids use to connect. A child with special needs may have had negative experiences, such as bullying or teasing from peers that makes them less willing to try to befriend others. They may simply not have as much exposure to typical peers, given their educational placement and therapeutic needs.
There are ways to find help and support. When kids receive direct teaching of social skills, they also need opportunity to practice and generalize these skills. Social skill support groups are great for this, as they include peers at similar functioning levels and with similar needs. Kids work together on fun and engaging activities, and there are usually at least one or two trained professionals in the group to help facilitate the interactions. This is a safe and educational way to learn about different peer relationships – and make some friends!
It is also remember to meet kids where they are at. Parents have so many wishes and hopes and dreams, but they also need to remember that their kids may not be like themselves. A parent who was voted “Most Popular” may have a child who is an introvert, who needs very little social stimulation to feel fulfilled.
A parent’s goal may need to shift from “Where can my child make friends?” to “Where can my child experience joy?” All people, special needs or not, are drawn to happiness. Finding an activity that brings joy and excitement to your child will likely help him or her find their people. Structured activities, like dance or soccer, may be unnecessarily stressful to your child. The pressure of a coach or leader, a team, and parents with high expectations may result in increased behaviors, and may even do harm to your child’s social standing. Whereas if your child is passionate about Legos and building structures, finding a Lego club or team, with other like-minded kids, may cultivate happiness, and help connect with kids who like the same things.
All children deserve to feel acceptance, happiness, and shared joy. If your child is struggling with friendships and relationships, contact us! We can help.