Helping Your Disabled Child to Make Friends: 4 Easy Tips

helping your disabled child make friends

Longtime readers of this blog know that I support an inclusive environment in school for kids with disabilities like mine. I’ve worked hard over the years, with up to 3 IEP meetings over the course of a school year to ensure that all is going well, and have worked with a local inclusion expert too. While that’s been helpful, the fact is it is still difficult for my kids to make friends that they can see after school is over. Fortunately, there is an organization that exists to help families like ours! The National Inclusion Project helps parents of disabled children assist their children in making friends. I interviewed Aron Hall, Director of Programs for the National Inclusion Project, on how parents can help their kids.

Hi Aron, thank you for this interview and a chance to learn more about your organization. When parents are trying to help their disabled child to make friends, what can they do first and foremost?

Thanks, Gina. That’s a great question. Exposure is important – that is, get outside the home. This requires parents getting over their initial fear of getting looks or comments. The common parent mentality tends to be short term: “What if there is a meltdown? What if she gets injured?” Parents need to keep the longview in mind. Having a disability may add extra layers but we’ve all had hardships that we’ve moved through in our relationships and friendships.

Those disappointments teach us. It’s the same for disabled kids. You have to think, What really is the goal? There will be hardships on the road to friendships but parents need to decide, “Today is the day!” Whether that means you go to the park, schedule a playdate, go bowling, etc. The big difference, though, is that parents constantly need to facilitate these relationships for their kids. In the end, the reward will be there.

Another thing parents should understand is that the vast majority of parents who aren’t raising children with disabilities aren’t against befriending a kid with special needs. They just don’t know what they need to. Just be honest with them. What does being nonverbal look like? What works when communicating with your child? You can say, “Let me explain. This is what she needs right now. You want to respect her space.” etc. Make sure you’re being positive too.

People don’t know the words to say, so tell them. For example, you may hear someone say, “Oh she’s a Downs kid.” Gently correct them. “Here’s the way to say it…” or “Have you considered saying…” Be open.

You should also recognize that your role, as a parent, is a seed planter. You can’t force a child to be friends with someone.

That’s great advice, Aron. And friendship works both ways. They just might not have the chemistry. Now that we’re talking about what parents say, I’d like to share that most of the comments or questions I’ve gotten, especially when my kids were younger, were from children in public places, like swimming pools. I remember a child asking why my daughter talked funny. I also clearly remember the parent looking embarrassed and not wanting to catch my eye. I answered the child in a way he could understand, but did you have any other advice?

That’s very common. A child will ask a question out of curiosity. Sometimes parents will be embarrasses but you made the right call. Honestly answer children. If you can read that a parent is “flabbergasted” that their child is blunt, say, “That’s a really great question! Thanks for asking.” Make sure the parent can hear you. Or, you can directly say to the parent, “I appreciate they are asking and that says a lot about you as a parent. Thank you.

helping disabled kids make friends

Good stuff! I love this concept of complimenting the parent and it’s great that kids are open and honest. It can be scary watching your child start to talk to people they don’t know. My daughter is about to enter high school in a few months. I’m very nervous about her level of skill with people. We have taught her about strangers, but what advice do you have as our disabled children start to move out into the world to stay safe? Additionally, my daughter is in a new school this year and I’ve been told recently that she’s eating alone at lunchtime. I’m not sure if she has any friends! What do I do, with my upcoming meeting with the school.

It’s important to remember that it’s not, “Don’t talk to strangers” but rather “Don’t go with strangers.” You need to talk to strangers to make friends. Asking questions about a person is a great way to start.

Regarding school, start with stating the goal. One priority is relationship building. If we help them learn to interact with others, that will be a #1 skill and that is a learned skill. You need to find out what is the disconnect. Remember that with teens and all their changes, kids are becoming more independent, even from their aides. Involve teachers and aides and be honest. Ask them what they are seeing in relationship building. Tell them what has worked in the past.

If you get pushback, dig deeper. Is the aide going to be more involved than she should be? They sometimes can insert more than they need be. We advocate “aide and fade,” that is, they facilitate then step out of the way. Aides – and parents – should purposeful with the setup of kids meeting but let their interaction be organic.

Let’s dig a little deeper into this concept of parents being a seed planter. What insight can you give us? Additionally, I just spoke with a woman who’s disabled son had a best friend – his aide. That man was his whole life. That’s easier to happen when they are older, but I can see how easily even at a young age your adult aide becomes your buddy rather than your peers.

First remember that creating these relationships is like seed planting. You don’t just plant a seed and stare. You need to tend to it, water it, care for it. Remember, too, that inclusion works both ways. They should be interacting with all kids – disabled and non-disabled. At Inclusion Project, we say, “Every child can make a friend.” No child is born to be destitute and lonely.

That said, in the short term it’s easy to think “aide=friend.” It works for you as a parent, but does it work for your kid? Probably not. Plus what happens when the aide moves on?

It’s important to know that when kids make connections, everything gets better. Behaviors decrease and participation increases. The overall atmosphere is better. This is true for any child, not just kids with disabilities. The way my own son acted after a sports game improved from being around his peers, who called out his poor attitude!

I know this feels like pushing a boulder up a hill but at some point, you’ll be on the other side of that hill! And your kids don’t always want to be where you are. They’ll get frustrated if you’re not helping them in an effective way.

4 Must-Do Tips To Help Your Disabled Child Make Friends

Helping disabled kids make friends

What tips do you have to help kids? We have a certain friend that has been very good communicating with both my daughters. What are some tips to facilitate that relationship before we lose touch as their schools change?

  1. Show appreciation.
    Kind and insightful kids have parents that taught them that. Let them know you appreciate it! “It’s a testament to you how well your child communicates to my child. Very few kids figure that out!”
  2. Ask to stay connected.
    Make them aware that you’d hate to lose this connection – as would your children – if you’re about to lose touch with them. Ask them to say connected and that you hope they feel the same way.
  3. Be upfront.
    We all fear the unknown. Let’s make it known! Tell them what makes your child tick and what makes your run away.
  4. Aide and fade.
    Provide the opportunity and tools to allow your kids explore if they want to  befriend someone, then step back and let it happen naturally.

Thanks, Aron! Those are excellent tips. Can you tell me more about the National Inclusion Project and their work?

The National Inclusion Project was formed in 2003, and I’ve been with them 11 years. We took some time to figure out our direction in the field and honed in on recreational inclusion out of school. We train professionals to provide inclusion in places like summer camps, after school programs, museum programs, etc. Partnering with groups is a big part of our mission.

We host a national conference call to get connected with lots of professionals that work with kids with disabilities. We try to create pockets of inclusion everywhere to make it known for all.

We are now establishing standards to provide accreditation for organizations that want to work with us., demonstrating what a quality inclusion program looks like. We will eventually provide parent resources.

The Project is big on meeting needs where they are. Our staff and board have big hearts. Many know firsthand the need for inclusion outside of schools. Our co-founder and president, Diane Bubel, has a nonverbal autistic child. We understand the need that’s out there.

Sounds like a great program to me! Thanks, Aron, I will definitely use those tips to help my children make new friends as they grow!

Check out the National Inclusion Project at their website. You can also visit them on Facebook and Twitter.