My son is six-years-old and has a rare chromosomal disorder which makes it challenging for him to relate to others. He eats with a feeding tube, needs to be catheterized regularly, and uses either a wheelchair or a walker to get around. He is developmentally delayed from his same-age peers. On top of all this, his facial features look different. All of these things can make it intimidating for his peers to befriend him. He is very social however and loves to look at his classmates in the eyes, giggle, and grab at their toys or their faces. It’s his way of being friendly.
How do you include a child who is difficult to include?
This is not an easy answer. The specifics vary from child-to-child. There is something common to everyone, however, friendship. Everyone needs friendship.
When we teach our neurotypical children to play with friends or siblings it is often a mutually beneficial relationship. They get the instant gratification that comes from playing pretend alongside each other when they are little.
They also learn how to share toys and take turns. And being competitive and active as they get older. They learn how to share their thoughts and feelings with one another as relationships mature.
Generally, it’s fun for children to interact with one another. Many children with disabilities lack these sorts of experiences with their peers, especially if they are nonverbal or have behavior challenges. It’s up to us as parents, teachers, and caregivers to bridge this gap.
Remember we were once also intimidated by disability. We simply needed to step toward someone with a disability, expecting nothing in return.
That’s what we need to teach our kids too.
What you gain from befriending someone with special needs is not always so instant or tangible. This is hard to teach kids.
We teach by modeling.
It’s not about getting, but giving. In these simple things:
- Give someone a greeting. Say, “hello!”
- Give someone a gentle pat on the shoulder or hand.
- Give someone a piece of yourself. Yes, you have permission to talk about you! Tell them something you want them to know or notice. Many people with disabilities are excellent listeners.
- Give your presence. Regularly try to interact with those who are different than you. The ongoing habit of your presence in certain settings will mean a lot to them.
- Ask questions. Asking questions promotes interaction.
I do wonder what friendship will look like for my son as he ages.
School is going well now. He is in first grade. He has little friends in his class, simply because this is the sweet age where all of them are friends with one another and their differences largely go unnoticed.
Church is going well. Nathan has a buddy with him to help him navigate the other kids. He boldly marches up to other children in his walker to try to meet them. He can’t say anything but he reaches toward their faces in an attempt to connect. Second, they include Nathan in the ways he can with other kids. He is part of their playtime and learning time. He is part of walking to play outside. Of course, it looks different but he’s present.
Nathan does OT at a therapy gym where typical kids his age come to play. He intensely watches other kids his age or younger play on all of the equipment and many of the moms talk to him as if he’s just another of the bunch.
But if we can all remember one simple thing — friendship.
Nathan will always be doing life in his own way, at his own pace. Although it will be clumsy and slower, I hope it is never in complete isolation from his peers.
I hope that they have opportunities to get to know him and I hope that he has a chance to show them his love and affection because he will if given the opportunity.
Thanks for reading…