Evan recently celebrated his birthday at an indoor trampoline park with a small group of friends – six to be exact. It was really nice to see my son surrounded by six kids who he cared about and who cared about him enough to join him in celebrating his special day. In the past I would have felt sorry for Evan for having so few kids at his party. Instead I feel sorry for the kids who have not had the opportunity or taken the chance to get to know my hilarious but mischievous, sweet and loyal son. I actually feel bad for all the neurortypical kids who don’t know what it’s like to have a friend with special needs.
Do your kids have any friends who are different, because they should. There are a million reasons why your child should have at least one friend with special needs. But for now, here are seven.
- Normal is boring. Think about your circle of friends. What type of person are you most drawn to? For me, people who think outside the box and are unconventional are the ones I enjoy spending time with.
2. Helping someone increases your child’s sense of self-worth. Kids like Evan need a little extra help and attention. Whether it’s holding the door for someone with a mobility issue or assisting a classmate who struggles with certain activities, chances are a child with special needs will need some kind of assistance.Each year Evan joins his inclusion class for a concert. The students learn songs and simple dances and perform for parents. During one of the performances, two girls took turns gently reminding my son when to start singing and where to stand. I wanted to thank them for helping Evan, but one of the girls’ moms beat me to it. She actually thanked me for allowing her daughter the opportunity to think about someone else. Helping Evan, she said, made her daughter feel needed and important
3. It shows your child the world is a diverse place. Often we think of diversity in terms of skin color or religion, but diversity is much more than that. True diversity encompasses all who are different and gives us reasons to celebrate the uniqueness of everyone.
4. It teaches your child patience and perspective. Evan takes longer than most to complete certain tasks and doesn’t always respect personal boundaries. It’s not uncommon for him to talk to someone by standing three inches in front of his or her face. Hanging out with someone like Evan gives peers the chance to slow down and work on patience. Also, knowing someone who has more challenges can help put things in perspective for your child. Not that every person with special needs is to be pitied, but depending on the challenges, it can sometimes put your child’s hardships in perspective.
5. Kids with special needs don’t judge or bully. We all know that kids can be mean. But, I have yet to come across a child with special needs who will judge others based on the clothes they wear, the size of their house or who they hang out with. Yes, many with autism or Asperger’s aren’t always the best at filtering their thoughts. However, they truly don’t mean to offend and they aren’t judging, they are merely observing.
6. It enhances your child’s communication skills. Communicating with someone who doesn’t talk or has limited language skills can be daunting. But with a little practice, it becomes obvious there are other ways to interact. When a student from Japan was placed in my daughter’s classroom, he didn’t speak more than a few words of English. The kids found other ways to communicate by showing him what they were trying to say, by drawing pictures and leading by example. The ones who attempted to interact with him were so proud of themselves for helping their new classmate.
7. It makes your child more understanding of others. We can’t relate to what we don’t understand. I can always tell when kids have a special needs classmate or buddy program in their schools by the way they interact with Evan. Those in classes with kids like Evan treat him like any other peer, and they don’t ignore his unusual questions about spider webs or light bulbs. Those who don’t have the opportunity to learn and play alongside kids like Evan just look at him like he’s from another planet when he squeaks with joy or asks about the lighting in their garage.
I know what you’re thinking. Wow, Jen, these are really great points and you’ve totally convinced me that my son or daughter should have at least one friend with a disability. But, how on earth do you expect me to make that happen? It’s not like we’re going to just go up to the first kid we see and say “Hey, do you have autism? How about if you guys become friends?” And just because I tell my kids they should make friends with a special needs child doesn’t mean they’re going to listen. I know you can’t force friendship, and we’re not looking for pity playdates, either.
I also know that having a friend with special needs isn’t the easiest thing in the world, but how often do we find that the most difficult tasks are the most rewarding? I get that while you may agree with every point I’ve raised here, the reality of life is that the best ideas and intentions often stay intentions. If I didn’t have a son with autism, I might read this, say these are great, plan on trying one or two suggestions but then get distracted by all the other craziness of life. But, here’s something you should know about people like me. We parents of kids with special needs won’t ever stop trying to make the world a more accepting place for our kids. We know we’re fighting an uphill battle, but we are warrior moms and this warrior mom will consider this post a success if even just one friendship is created as a result.
Here are seven ways your child can meet someone with special needs and, hopefully develop a friendship
1. Start young and by young I mean the age where playdates are based on whether you like hanging out with the other mom (because your young one doesn’t really care who is in the room as long as the other kid isn’t stealing her toys). While your kids aren’t going to play together, at such a young age they will get used to being around each other and differences will be understood and accepted more easily.
2. Start by teaching your kids to smile or say hi to those who are different. Make sure to model this behavior, too.
3. Look for inclusion opportunities in school and in the community. My family is fortunate to live in an area where there are a growing number of inclusion programs. Many schools provide students with a special friend to hang out with during activities. The typical kids really enjoy the program, and in some schools competition to be a special buddy is fierce. My nephew had to submit a written application at his school. Last year my son Noah played on a basketball team where some of the kids had disabilities. This was the perfect place for Noah, who had never played basketball in a league, to learn the game in a less-competitive environment and meet new friends.
4. If no opportunities exist, create them. Ask schools, religious institutions, organized sports team, etc. to include special needs kids in their programing and activities.
5. If a playdate at someone’s house won’t work, find an activity both kids can enjoy. Go to the movies, the park, bowling, etc. Find something to do where the kids can be together. That way if your child is resistant, at least he will be doing an activity that is fun for him. As these kids spend time together, they will get to know each other and your child will see the person and not the disability.
6. If your kids are teens, encourage them to volunteer with special needs kids. We are lucky enough to be a part of an organization called the Friendship Circle, where hundreds of teen volunteers spend as little as an hour or more each week with a child (or teen) with special needs. There are Friendship Circles all over the world. Evan has had a number of dedicated and caring new friends. A few got involved with the program just because they needed volunteer hours, and that’s ok. We’ve met a few who didn’t expect to enjoy it but ultimately loved being with these kids so much that they decided to stick with the program long after fulfilling their requirements.
7. Teach by example. How many friends do you have who are different? Even if you don’t have friends with noticeable disabilities, what about those who are different religions, races, sexual orientation?
I know that “on paper” this all sounds great but now it’s up to you to make something happen and not just for the benefit of my kid – he already has a few wonderful friends – but for the benefit of yours.