We’ve all felt anxious and nervous as we send our kids off to school, hoping that they will learn and make new friends. For parents of a child with special needs that anxious feeling may be compounded with worries of how other kids will treat your son or daughter. We contacted Bridges4kids.org, a website dedicated to providing resources for parents and teachers of children with special needs, to get ideas on how parents of children with special needs can help their children make friends at school.
Bridges4kids is run by Michigan parent volunteers including Carolyn Gammicchia, an expert on advocating for those with special needs. Gammicchia, whose 26-year-old son has autism, works as a parent mentor and advocate for families of children with special needs. She shares some tips for encouraging and supporting friendships.
Gammicchia’s No. 1 tip for parents of children with special needs is to get involved. Join the PTA, volunteer in the classroom and make sure your school sees you and knows you and your child. Help your child get involved. Are there sports or extracurricular activities that interest your child? If so, work with teachers and coaches to make it possible for your child to participate. Being a part of a club or team will provide your child with a built in support group of peers.
More alike than not alike
When her son was in elementary school, Gammicchia created a 45-minute presentation focusing on the similarities that we all have and took it to classrooms. She had students fill out questionnaires, using their answers to discuss how we are all more alike than different— we all have families, fears, goals, needs and more. The goal was to help the students see that each person is cool and has something neat about them. This helps break down the notion that a disability is a barrier and helps children see that we all have things in common.
Create a group
Wanting to give her son opportunities to socialize on a smaller than whole-class scale, Gammicchia and her husband spoke with the classroom teacher and administrators and received permission to start a group they called “Friends at Lunch.” The group consisted of four to six children, one of whom was always her son. The other participants rotated through the class members. One day a week they would eat lunch together and maybe play a game during the lunch period. Carolyn was surprised at how much all of the children loved this program. Each one looked forward to their turn to participate and by getting to know her son better the whole class became more accepting and cohesive. Parents who want to start a similar group should seek support of their local school.
Find your support community
Gammicchia encourages parents to use the 3 C’s: communication, collaboration, and compassion. She suggests finding a peer group or support group so you can share your stories and brainstorm, creating a natural circle of support within your community. You never want your children to think they are a burden; by having the support of others, you will be able to better meet your child’s needs with compassion.
For other ideas for families, parents, teacher and
friends of those with special needs please visit