Inclusion, the practice of educating, socializing and enriching children of different abilities alongside their typically developing peers —something required of every program The Children’s Trust funds – carries enormous benefits for both groups.
Children with special needs benefit from inclusion because it allows them to learn from their peers. Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), in particular, have been found to thrive in these environments, as being embraced by their peers can boost their confidence and self-esteem. For typically developing children, inclusion teaches empathy, helping them to see people first and disability second; it also promotes diversity acceptance and can lead to increased academic performance.
Challenges do exist, however, when bringing together differently abled peers, chief among them developing friendships in and outside the classroom. For parents of children with special needs, the social isolation often experienced by their children can be crushing. It’s painful to watch your child being left out of birthday parties, play dates and sports teams, or shunned because their behavior falls outside the norm.
Parents of children with special needs or autism want their kids to experience kindness, respect, acceptance and friendship, just as all mothers and fathers do. Pragmatists recognize that a child who doesn’t conform in class or in the playground can be frustrating for other children to interact with. But parents of the latter can encourage their children to extend the branch of companionship.
Educate Yourself – And Your Kids
From age-appropriate books to television characters to Facebook groups, there are many resources you can turn to to increase your knowledge and awareness of children with special needs. The Special Needs Acceptance Book: Being a Friend to Someone with Special Needs is a great read to start with; other helpful titles include How to Talk to an Autistic Kid, Speak Up and Get Along! and The Survival Guide for Making and Being Friends. Sesame Street character Julia, a little girl with autism, was introduced earlier this year; Glee (watch it on Netflix) and Friday Night Lights (available on DVD) both feature wheelchair-bound high school-aged characters. Facebook group Special Needs Families Miami offers an online forum for general topics to issues specific to our area. Organizations like Parent to Parent Miami (ptopmiami.org) and the ARC of South Florida (arcsofla.org) provide information and face-to-face support, while Autism Speaks (autismspeaks.org) offers tool kits for teachers and peers to help integrate children with special needs into social and educational settings.
Set the Groundwork
Sit down with your child and tease out ideas of how kindness and friendship differ. One way of reaching out to a classmate with special needs is to simply include them in activities, as they may not know how to ask to join in. Teach your kids to clearly express what each play activity involves, findcommon interests and be mindful that a new friend’s sensory sensitivity may mean they’ll need to take regular breaks. Explain to your child that this friendship will involve a bit more patience than usual, and sometimes giving feedback to the new friend if they’re doing something inappropriate. Being a friend to someone who is different may also mean standing up for them if they see someone teasing or bullying their buddy.
Friendship is difficult to pursue when your child has a lack of understanding of other people’s perspectives, or has no awareness that what they do has an impact on someone else. Those relationship rough spots are even more challenging to negotiate with a child with special needs. But kids can be taught how to “walk” in someone else’s shoes. Groups like Best Buddies (bestbuddies.org) and Miami-based Friendship Circle (friendshipcirclemiami.org) that encourage companionship and social opportunities for children with disabilities are excellent resources. Circle, for example, shows its teenage volunteers what it’s like to live with a disability through workshops designed to develop sensitivity.
For children on both sides of these relationships, learning how to adopt another’s perspective is a valuable life skill they’ll both carry with them into adulthood.
Rachel Spector, MSW, has more than 20 years’ experience in the field of early care and education; she oversees funding for early childhood development, including Miami-Dade County’s Quality Rating and Improvement System, at The Children’s Trust. For more information, visit thechildrenstrust.org.