At my daughter’s sixth birthday party, I smiled as I watched her introduce her friend Jackson, who she had known since she was a toddler, to her new friends from school. Within a few minutes, Jackson was happily playing with blocks while the other kids played racecars nearby. When I noticed that the noise level was starting to make Jackson agitated, I helped him move the blocks to a quieter room and encouraged my daughter, Laurel, to play with him.
A few years earlier, when Jackson was diagnosed with autism, about how I would explain it to Laurel. I decided to follow Laurel’s lead and wait for a good opportunity to arise. One day she asked why Jackson didn’t talk to her like her other friends. I explained to her that different things were harder for some people than others and that talking to people and making friends was harder for Jackson than it was for her. Throughout the years, Jackson’s mother and I had often commented about how much both of our children enjoyed the time that they spent together despite their different communication styles.
Benefits of Friendship
When children with special needs and typically developing children become friends at school, church or through after school activities, both children benefit from the friendship. When parents notice friendship blooming, they should encourage the relationship as they would with any other childhood friendship by setting up play dates to get together outside of school.
Be sure to ask questions of the parent with the special needs child. Most parents are happy to explain their child’s issues and welcome the opportunity to provide information.
Children often accept differences more openly than adults. “Fostering new and diverse friendships may seem a bit scary but the truth is that children (both kids and teens) are so much more accepting than we think,” says Dr. Peter Faustino, President-elect of the New York Association of School Psychologists (NYASP).
Focus on the similarities instead of the differences
Parents of typically developing children often wonder how to explain their friend’s special needs to their child. Focus on the similarities between the two children instead of the differences.
Answer any questions in a factual and age appropriate way.
Encourage the kids to bond over common interests, such as sports, books, music and games. If an activity is going to be challenging for the special needs child, steer the children to an activity where both kids can participate. Many parents are surprised at how naturally the kids bond and select activities that interest them both.
Practical advice for play dates
A great way to encourage the friendship is to have the children get together outside of school and to schedule shared activities. Barbara Boroson, Licensed Master’slevel Social Worker and mother of a child on the autism spectrum, suggests that parents of both typically developing and special needs children role play with their children before the play date. “Take a few minutes to guide her toward considering her friend’s interests, hobbies, likes and dislikes.” says Boroson.
Talk to the parent of the special needs child before the play date to see if they have any suggestions that may help the play date go smoothly, such as recommending child enjoys. Be sure to ask about any allergies or medical conditions that you should be aware of.
Boroson says that sharing can often be an issue for younger children during play dates. “Some children with special needs keep very careful track of certain toys and accessories, and cannot tolerate anyone touching, moving, or changing them,” says Boroson. “Before another child comes to play, it can be helpful to suggest that your child put away any toys he feels he cannot share and know that any toys he leaves out must be shared fully.”
If the play date does not go as planned, remember play dates with two typically developing children do not always go smoothly. Brainstorm with the other parent about ideas to help the next play date go better, such as meeting at a quieter location or meeting at a different time of day.
Childhood friendships, especially those that encourage the sharing of diversity and acceptance, are an important part of development that bring growth and joy.