Finding friends for your special needs child

Kids want to have friends. But it's not so easy for special needs children to find meaningful friendships with others. Some children are shunned because of physical differences. Others have social and communication deficits that make it difficult to start and keep friendships. While it is impossible to address the nuances of every disability, here are some general tips toward finding friends for your child.

by Dawn Villarreal, One Place for Special Needs


two boys playing video games iStock photoIt can be done
As a parent of two special needs kids, finding meaningful friendships is near and dear to my heart.  I have used all of these methods and it has helped me build a small group of close knit friends who are able to look past my children’s disabilities and form a genuine friendship.

It takes time, a little bit of detective work and being able to handle some rejection, but you can find friends for your child too!

Ask your child’s teacher
Your child’s teacher sees which children in the classroom go out of their way to talk to your child.  They see the classmates who take the time to assist your son or daughter without asking.  Ask who these children are and contact their parent.  You can start your conversation like this:

“Mrs. Smith told me that your son and my son really get along in class.  I’d love the chance for them to get together.”

Depending on the disability, it is up to you if you wish to disclose the disability at this point, at the start of the play date or after the play date.  You can help spread disability awareness by creating a one-page info sheet on your son that explains the disability and how to interact in kid terms.  Or purchase a kid friendly book on your child’s disability to loan or give as a gift.

Find the gems during birthday parties
If you can afford a birthday party and invite all the classmates, this is a great opportunity to see for yourself which children interact best with your child.  The children that want to sit next to the birthday boy or girl are good candidates for future play dates.

A child that makes sure your birthday child is included while the rest of the kids run off to an activity will be worth his weight in gold.  Don’t discount children who are a different gender from your child.  For instance, many girls can become nurturing and caring friends to boys with disabilities.

Ensure a successful play date
When a new friend comes to play, control the environment to make sure this new friend has a positive experience.  Don’t set up a three hour play date if your child can only handle one hour.  Set up a schedule of preferred play activities if your child is unable to verbalize these on her own.  Intervene arguments before they escalate.  If your child has difficulty socializing, start out with an activity (e.g. going to a movie) that allows shared enjoyment with minimal social interaction. 

Emphasize with the friend’s mom how much fun both children had during their get together.  Remember, the success of the first play date will dictate whether or not future play dates take place. Gradually build up to less structured get togethers.

Don’t let age get in the way
We all would like our children to play with children in their age group.  But this is not always possible due to a child’s particular deficits or lack of willing peers. 

Experiment having interactions with different aged children.  You might find that your child enjoys the big brother or sister role with a younger child.  This gives them a sense of responsibility and they can better control the play activities.  An older teen or adult can be more patient with the child who wants to talk about special interests.  They will also be more understanding to social blunders while same age peers would not. 

Ask to borrow a friend’s son or daughter, a neighbor’s child or a relative for a trial play date.  Even an aunt or uncle can become an appreciated friend and mentor to a child with special needs.

Find another child with special needs
Often times, our child is the only one with special needs in the classroom.  Wouldn’t it be nice to find a fellow friend who is going through the same issues and might have similar interests?

The Peer Match program at One Place for Special Needs helps you find other children (teens and adults too) with a similar diagnosis and/or similar interests.  On this free site you can fill out a profile of your child’s birth year, gender, diagnosis and interests.  You can search for peers with similar interests and contact the parent to set up a get together.

Check with your state disability organization.  Some organizations offer parent-to-parent services that might put you in touch with a local family for support and friendship. Your child's speech, occupational or physical therapist may also be able to put you in touch with another area family.

A great international organization is called The Friendship Circle which brings together teenage volunteers and children with special needs for hours of fun and friendship. See if there is a Friendship Circle chapter in your area.

Check out enthusiast clubs or recreational activities
To make up for a lack of friends, your child may have taken up more solitary interests.  These days there are clubs and conventions for just about every hobby from dinosaurs to kite flying.  Take the time to research local clubs and see if your child can get involved.  If the Internet turns up no results, try contacting your area library or museum.

If your child is involved in any sports or recreational activities, chat up the other moms.  These are parents who are already aware of your child's disability from seeing him in sports events or before and after classes. Parents who are open and friendly in their conversations may be happy to set up a play date with your child.

Have you considered a furry friend?
In addition to friendship with peers, you might consider a furry companion for your child with special needs.  Many children form a close bond with their pet who offers unconditional love.  In addition, children learn about responsibility and empathy in taking care of their pet.

A study in Germany showed 80 percent of children interviewed considered their dog to be an important friend and confidante. A survey in England showed that 85 percent of children regards their pets as a playmate.

Conquer your fear of rejection
In your search to find friends for your child, you will run into rejection.  There will be the parent that’s not comfortable having your child play with theirs.  Other times it’s a child that was friends but now has other interests.  And sometimes a play date just doesn’t quite work out as planned.  It’s easy to feel discouraged and give up.

Do not let these situations deter you from continuing your search for friends for your child. You will find parents who will look past the disability and encourage their child to bond with your son or daughter.  You can find that special child who appreciates your child for who he is.  Be strong and be on the look out for friendship opportunities wherever they may turn up.

More reading:

Play dates - Information on setting up successful play dates with your special needs child
Making friends - Over 50 resources on helping your chlid make friends
Family pets - What are they good for? Lots of things including learning and socializing
Social opportunities - Links on finding social opportunities for your child
Teaching your child about peers with special needs - Encourage your child to learn about and be a friend to children with disabilities
Explaining disabilities to children - Many links helping children understand various disabilities
Kids with disabilities want to be treated like other kids - Good article on community inclusion in recreation and sports

Dawn VillarrealAbout the writer

Dawn Villarreal runs One Place for Special Needs, a national disability resource that lets you find local and online resources, events and even other families in your neighborhood plus thousands of online disability resources! Stay awhile and check out the site. She is also moderator of Autism Community Connection, a Yahoo group for families in Illinois. Reprint permission granted by including: Reprinted with permission from One Place for Special Needs