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How to Help Your Child With Special Needs Find Friends

My fifth-grade son would stand at the edge of the driveway with his bike, football in hand, ready to join the neighborhood kids as they made their way to the open field nearby. Each time, he waited patiently to be asked to play. But they never asked. Instead, they laughed and rode by, sneering, “He’s weird,” or “He can’t play sports.”

Born with a rare neurological condition where tumors grow on his nerve endings, my son's speech, processing and motors skills are largely delayed. And the neighborhood kids didn’t let him forget it. He tried for years to befriend them to no avail.

Research proves that friends can enrich kids’ lives, boost their self-esteem and provide moral support. Kids are motivated by social interaction, and great things happen to their independence when they feel socially accepted.

Unfortunately, friendlessness can be the norm for a lot of kids with physical and intellectual disabilities, many of whom have spent lots of their childhood with little to no peer interaction.

The truth is, I can think of a million ways to support and advocate for my son, now in high school, but I can’t make someone like him. It’s a sobering reality admitting that a child may never be able to develop friends naturally because he can’t speak, looks different, can’t keep up physically or intellectually or does things that aren’t considered “cool.”

Luckily, there are places to help foster genuine friendships for these kids.

Friendship Circle of Dallas pairs neurotypical teens and young adults with children with special needs (they also host group parties and trips too). Co-director Leah Dubrawsky matches kids based on location and interests. Volunteers travel to their special friend’s home once a week and spend a couple of hours
cooking, baking, doing art projects or playing board games with them.

While Dubrawsky talks the volunteers through some scenarios that they might experience beforehand, she admits that there isn’t any formal training.

“The beauty of these relationships is that they are organic,” she explains. “The kids with special needs already have therapies and so much structure; we want these friendships to grow naturally.”

And they do. 10-year-old Jake Serota, who has social pragmatic language disorder, making it difficult for him to adapt his behavior based on the reactions of others, is part of the program.

“Jake is very social at school, where the other kids are a lot like him, but he struggles to find anything in common with typical kids at places like summer camp, which often makes him a target for bullying,” admits his mom Marci Serota. “I think his Friendship Circle friend has actually increased his confidence because there is a teenager who is interested in spending time with him every week.”

Other places to find friends? Ask your daughter’s teachers which students go out of their way to talk to or assist her in class. Then contact those parents to set up playdates. If your child has difficulty socializing, start with an activity that allows for shared enjoyment without a lot of interaction — like going to see a movie — and gradually build to less structured get togethers from there.

Seek out other kids with special needs. The nonprofit Families for Effective Autism Treatment of North Texas (FEAT-NT) in Richland Hills hosts four annual family fun days where families come together in a fun, friendly environment. (The next one, the Easter event, hosted with Northwood Church Revive program on April 15 is for all families with autism and other disabilities.)

“A lot of kids with special needs often don’t get the opportunity to be social,” says Laurie Snyder, president of FEAT-NT. “They aren’t invited to peers’ birthday parties and many have narrowed interests, reducing the opportunities to find friends.”

Another option: Take kids to sensory-friendly events organized by Hunter’s Autism Specials, a nonprofit that plans events like Home Depot craft days for kids with special needs and their families.

Or go online. Enter your ZIP code into the Peer Match program on One Place for Special Needs’ website and narrow your search by age or diagnosis.
But don’t let age get in the way. Experiment. Organize playdates between your child and kids in different age groups. You might find that your son likes taking on the big brother role, for instance.

My son recently found his small group of close-knit friends on his own, without my help, in the computer club he joined at school. Because there’s already a foundation of common interests, he made friends — easily. The kid who rarely uttered a word now participates in full conversations with his buddies. And I’m beaming.