As a caregiver to a child with disabilities, you witness, firsthand, the struggles that he or she faces each day. While you see and celebrate all of the extraordinary things about your child, such as his kind nature and quick-witted sense of humor or her impressive memory and artistic talents, others may only see your child for his or her disability. Whether your child has a visible or invisible disability, it can be difficult to make and keep friends who are accepting and understand some of the daily challenges. Here are some ways to help your disabled child connect with other disabled children within the community and build a lasting friendship:
Be Aware of Your Own Judgements
If your child has a physical disability, such as cerebral palsy, that confines him or her to a wheelchair, you may be more in tune to other disabled children in the community who have visible impairments. Keep in mind, when trying to connect your child with others within the disabled community, that there are numerous types of disabilities that are visible and invisible. For example, if your child has cerebral palsy, you may be more interested in connecting your child with other kids who have cerebral palsy. While gathering children, with the same disability, together may make them feel less alone, you may be passing up on other disabled children who have a lot to offer in a friendship.
For instance, your son is wheelchair bound due to spina bifida and he seems to get along well with a classmate who has Autism. While your son’s classmate may seem very “able bodied”, be careful not to make any assumptions about his abilities or disabilities. Rather than thinking that your child’s disability more “real” or easier to understand, take the time to learn about his classmate’s disability and reinforce that it’s important to accept anyone, regardless of their mental or physical capabilities.
Getting Involved in the Community
Some children with disabilities may only have the opportunity to connect with other children with disabilities if they meet them in school. If your child has a disability, but is fully immersed with other students at school, there’s a good chance that he or she may not know of any other peers with a disability (again, not all disabilities are visible). A good starting point for getting your child connected with others in the disabled community is by enrolling in specific programs such as adaptive specialty programs (such as sports, art, theater) or finding a support or play group for children with similar disabilities. Connecting with others like him or her, your son or daughter may gain confidence, learn more about acceptance, expand his or her own mind about others, and become comfortable socializing with others.
Figure Out Where Your Child Struggles
Disabled children are no different than other children when it comes to making friends. Some kids are good at making friends and others struggle to build a healthy and lasting friendship. If your child has a difficult time making friends, take the time to figure out where he or she struggles. Don’t automatically assume that your child isn’t making or keeping friends because of his or her disability or that someone is treating him or her differently or unfairly. Children with disabilities, particularly those who are challenged by ADHD, auditory and emotional issues, may not be successful at making friends because of their disabilities, but there are successful ways to make a friend.
Talk to your child’s teacher or someone that works with your child on a regular basis (other than you) and ask them to help you find peers who respond well to your child’s ups and downs. If your child can’t seem to make friends because of his or her poor social skills, consider hiring a specialist to work one-on-one with your child or try to work on building better skills with your child.
Make the First Move
As a caregiver of a disabled child it’s very natural to feel overprotective at times and even feel afraid or nervous for your child’s social interactions. However, making friends and creating a healthy relationship with another person is an important step in life. You may not always be able to prevent your child from feeling the stigma of being disabled and you might not be able to shield every comment made by a bully, but you can always encourage your child to keep making friends and interact with everyone he or she meets. Rather than wait for other children to approach your child for a playdate or an introduction at the park, make the first move and connect with people in your neighborhood or invite families to your home for a meal and playtime.