Do you know the top phrase people search Google for in the categories of Autism, ADHD, Asperger’s Syndrome, Twice-Exceptional and communication disorders?
“Find friends for your special needs child.”
The answer stopped me in my tracks. I wish I could reach out to all the people who do that search and enroll their children in The Quaker School at Horsham. I wish they could be part of our friendly, accepting community.
But since they all can’t—and since I imagine some of our own parents have felt these same concerns—I want to share the tips that have worked for me, both within my own family and within this amazing school community.
#1: Become a Scout
Last Saturday at the library, a young girl came over and asked my daughter, Pearl, to play. “That’s my friend Madison!” Pearl told me, giggling.
While they were playing, I chatted with the girl’s mother and learned that Pearl and Madison knew each other from their Daisy Girl Scout troop. Pearl, who has cerebral palsy, loves her Daisy troop members—and they love her. She looks forward to the Christmas parade where she can walk alongside her “best friend” Madison. Meanwhile, my wife and I are eyeing the budget of Pearl’s birthday party, since everyone in the troop wants an invite. For Pearl, Girl Scouts has become more than about just one friend; she’s part of a community filled with kind, caring girls her age.
Whether you’re exploring Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts, talk to the leader of the group. It is this person, more than the national or local employees, who sets the tone for the group’s inclusivity. With the right person at the head of the troop, scouting can change your child’s life and provide them with plenty of fun, meaningful experiences.
#2: Join a Team
Sports help children learn planning, patience, gross- and fine-motor skills, and plenty of additional physical and social skills, all while they build confidence and have fun. But perhaps most important, sports allow children to become part of a team.
Look for local Special Olympics opportunities, or leagues designed for those with physical or mental challenges, like Horsham’s Challenger League. You can also explore amazing opportunities for adaptive skiing, snowboarding, skateboarding, martial arts and horseback riding—but make sure there is a group or team component, since the main goal is to develop friendships.
#3: Play Matchmaker
Your child might struggle to initiate friendships. And that might not be something you can help them overcome overnight. So, in the words of Francis Bacon, “If the mountain will not come to Muhammad, then Muhammad must go to the mountain.”
When your child bumps into a classmate at the library or on the sidelines at that Challenger League game, start talking to the other parents. While this might be slightly awkward or uncomfortable, know that you are doing something important for your child.
Always leave with a firm commitment to either talk again or have a playdate. Be direct and ask for what you want, even though it may mean rejection. Say “Why don’t you drop Madison off with us for an hour on Saturday at 1?” or “Can I have your number, so I can text you about getting the kids together this Thursday?” This will go a lot farther than an open-ended: “Let’s get the kids together sometime!”
These steps might make your schedule a little busier. You might make some people uncomfortable. But you also might help your child develop the friendships you’ve both been hoping for. And, as Google’s data shows, there are a lot of parents out there hoping for the same thing. The risk isn’t as big as it might seem—and the reward is much, much bigger.
What have you done to help develop new friendships for your child? Share your tips and advice in the comments below.