It’s a tough lesson to comprehend as an adult; that you might need to deliberately foster friendship between children. Most likely, when you were a child, you found friends essentially through trial and error — but when your child has special needs, they may well lack the tools necessary to engage in that kind of social experimentation. So you will have to put some work in on their behalf. Here are some ‘Dos and don’ts’ that should help:
Model Acceptance and Inclusion: Not for your child, but for the people who interact with your child. For example, make an effort to not talk about your child if they are present — unless you include them as part of the conversation. Presume that your child is competent enough to understand the conversation, even if you’ve been told they’re not; even if they clearly aren’t competent enough to participate. Show others how to accept and include your child, and how to avoid assuming that they are incompetent.
Be The Expert on Your Child: Prepare three levels of ‘elevator pitch’ regarding your child’s abilities: one for experts (doctors, case workers, school personnel), one for laymen (parents of friends, waiters, bus drivers), and one for children in your kid’s peer group. Just a few sentences designed to tell them what to expect and how to interact — enough to ease the awkwardness.
Remind Children Everyone is Different: Children take no time whatsoever to determine what makes another person different from them, and they can get hung up on those differences if not guided. Develop a deep understanding of your child’s interests and strengths, and use them to draw connections to other children.
Provide the Opportunity for Empathy: Empathy is a great way to build support. If your child has a visual impairment, for example, consider bringing a pair of $1 reading glasses with you and offering it to a potential friend to wear. Ask them to do a few basic tasks, and tell them that the entire world is like that for your child. If your child has trouble speaking, ask their peers to try to get all the way through lunch without using words to communicate. The more they can empathize, the less likely they are to be exclusive and mean.
Acknowledge the Differences: Children with special needs are different. They have IEPs that speak to those differences. Because of those differences, they often miss out on fun opportunities, or cannot participate in the same way as others. Don’t pretend that there’s nothing to discuss here; instead, point it out! Some kids wear glasses so they can see; other kids take medicine so they can concentrate; others use wheelchairs so they can get around. Everyone makes choices that let them be the best person they can be — some are just more obvious than others.
Teach Them to Speak Up for Themselves: Self-determination is a vital first step for all learners, but for many children of special needs, it’s critical to also develop the skill of self-advocacy: the ability to speak up for their own needs and desires. Teach them to tell others when they are feeling bullied, pressured, or left out — their ability to stand up for themselves will help them make friends far more easily than otherwise.