by Susan Atkins
Helping our kids make (and keep) friends is a huge challenge. There never seems to be anyone who can help, or any easy answers; however, over the years, a few tips I picked up along the way helped me with all three of our girls, especially Alexa, who was born with Down syndrome.
#1: Have High Expectations and Hope
When your child is different—diagnosed with a disability—it is more difficult to figure out how to help them make friends, especially if they don’t have language and social skills until a later age. Alexa was one of those kids. She always had a great smile, but did not have the language to interact much with other kids in those early years. I had to hope and expect that with help—from her family, the neighbors, and her school staff—she would make some friends.
#2: Provide or Create Access to Other Kids/Inclusion
Someone told me “you have to have access” to make friends. You have to be in class, at church, in the neighborhood—not home sick all the time, not in the house, not in a special ed class all day. Other kids have to spend time with you to get to know you before they will be your friend. I also felt that you have to be around other kids who are talking and acting socially appropriate if you want your child to learn those skills.
Alexa was a watcher and would imitate what the other kids did or said. I wanted her included as much as possible, which was often not easy for the schools. But it just felt right. I wanted her to be part of our society, not on the outside. I also wanted the other kids to get to know Alexa and find out she was “more alike than different.”
Once in school, Alexa had a Circle of Friend’s group every year. Circle of Friends is a group that’s facilitated by special education staff. Usually we would get 6-7 kids (without disabilities) from a class who would come.
The special ed teacher would facilitate the lunch group once a week. I used to buy pizza once a month for the group and stop in and eat with them to get to know the other kids.I also tried to get to know the other kid’s parents as they were the ones I had to “sell on” letting Alexa come over to their house or they come to ours. Once she was in high school the “peer tutor group” took over and ran the Circle. It was great. They planned everything, and even took the kids off campus to movies, out to eat, etc.
Another way to provide or create access to other kids is to make sure that your child is included in the first and last periods of the day at least. Those are the important times for kids get to know one another, as they listen to announcements, hang up their coats and back packs. And make sure your child is “part-of” a regular classroom, not just included at lunch or recess. Again, you have to have Access and Inclusion to make friends.
Look for non-specialized programs and groups for your child to join. Girl Scouts and Camp Fire and Boy Scouts can be great inclusive groups for your child. Alexa was in a Girl Scout group in grade school. Later, she went on to join the Choir and also was in ASB and Leadership Class. Another parent and I pretty much helped plan and bought all the supplies.
#3: Make Your House a Really Fun Place for Other Kids
Role play and talk about “fit in” behaviors at every age: not hugging the kids, just saying hi, not standing too close or talking about or doing “too personal of things.” Age appropriate behaviors: dress like the other kids, watch the same movies, listen to the same music, play the same computer games, read or listen on tape to the same books, be able to play on the playground with them. We needed to give Alexa things she could talk about and do with other kids at every age that they could enjoy together.
#4: Network and Get Support
Make sure that you get the support you need from other parents. Join Parent to Parent and other support groups. Take time for yourself and get away with your partner/spouse. I needed a life outside the disability world. And many of these tips I learned from other parents before I tried them out on Alexa and her sisters.
Today, Alexa is all grown up, working and living on her own (with support). Things are not perfect, of course. She would like to find a “guy friend” to be best friends with. We are still working on that, as she wants that in her life. Facebook has been a great way for her to keep up with her friends and she really enjoys talking with them that way.
Susan Atkins is the Washington State Parent to Parent (P2P) Coordinator.
Parent to Parent (P2P). Support and information for families of children with developmental disabilities.
Family Community Connections Guidebook. Information and Resources for Families and Individuals with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities in Washington State.