These days we boldly challenge the notion of what is “normal.” Yet, even at an instinctual level, we know that all children want to have a sense of “normalcy” and feel that they are doing things like other kids. Children are keenly aware of what they have (or don’t have) and can be quick to compare themselves to others.
Unfortunately, these comparisons, left unchecked, can lead to a child developing inaccurate negative thoughts about herself. For example, lack of friends or a peer group can lead to feelings of loneliness, isolation, guilt, shame or low self-worth. When I meet with parents of special needs children, many sadly report hearing their children ask, “Why can’t I have friends? Why am I like this?” For some special needs children, making friends can be difficult due to impairments in social skills, problem-solving or emotional regulation. The good news is that adults can help.
As a mental health provider, I encourage parents to seek out a group of “like-minded” peers for their children so that they can practice social skills and develop a sense of social belonging. This can be a challenge—and sometimes requires some creative thinking—but it’s a big world, and there’s somebody out there for everyone! Summer is a great time to explore social options like arranging a short play date. Community theater, train club or school-sponsored support groups are additional examples of activities I have seen parents utilize to help their special needs children connect with peers with common interests.
Parents are often worried about potentially negative influences children can have on each other, which can cause some parents to steer away from opportunities to engage socially. However, the reality is that there is always some risk whenever children are put together, regardless of special needs status. Even typical children can learn (and teach!) unwanted behaviors. When you are planning to arrange a social experience with a special needs child, here are some tips to keep in mind:
Keep it Real
Have a realistic set of expectations that are consistent with your child’s level of ability. Consider practicing a targeted skill before a scheduled play date (such as asking someone to play, or asking a question to start a conversation). Start by keeping initial social experiences brief. Be sensitive to your child’s limits with regard to sensory stimulation and frustration tolerance (crowds, excessive heat, loud noises and ability to wait in lines or take turns).
Before gathering children together, talk first as parents about your concerns. What is OK? What is not OK? What are signs of mounting frustration? What are triggers for emotional escalation? If you are the parent of a nonspecial needs child, be prepared to provide simple and nonjudgmental explanations to your child. (“Sometimes Johnny makes sounds when he is excited; everyone is different.”) Many special needs children are experts on their own conditions and can serve to educate their peers.
Parents will want to give their children space to play but must keep eyes and ears open to make sure play is safe and appropriate. Monitor for overly rough, violent or sexualized play. Be available to intervene with help to problem-solve conflicts that will naturally arise among youngsters. Examples of interventions include setting time limits, helping with turn-taking or making the executive decision to move along to a different activity.
Generously praise all children for being flexible, putting forth best efforts to try something new and having a great time!
Dr. Ayanna Cooke-Chen is the medical director for the Forbush School at Glyndon, part of the Sheppard Pratt Health System.