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The Most Important Friend Your Child May Ever Make

girl-with-down-syndrome-with-friends-photoLike many children, my son is friendly with the kids in his classroom. Unlike many children, those are his only friends.

Max has cerebral palsy and cognitive impairment, due to a stroke at birth; he attends a school for kids with special needs. The lack of typically-developing friends doesn’t bother Max, who is not yet conscientious of it. It bothers me. Max is a super-friendly, fun kid who deserves lots of different friends—and lots of friends deserve him.

Of course, my friends’ children hang with him when they visit. One of my best friends has arranged playdates with her daughter who’s around Max’s age, though she lives an hour away. The neighborhood kids are friendly when everyone’s playing outside, but that’s as far as it goes. Their moms have never reached out to me and vice versa, although I know I should take that first step. Friendship would benefit all our children, as a new study reveals.

A study of 1520 children ages 7 to 16 found that those who regularly interacted with people with disabilities generally had better attitudes toward people with special needs. They were less fearful of them, too, and more empathetic. Even just observing other people interact with those who had special needs, or observing their friendships, improved children’s attitudes, shows the study by the University of Exeter Medical School in England.

These friendships could majorly benefit children with special needs like my son. They’d feel included instead of ostracized. It could boost their self-esteem, and even help them develop. It would open their worlds. Less obvious, I think, are the potential payoffs for children who don’t have special needs. As study author Megan MacMillan said at the recent British Psychological Society conference, “The effort to improve attitudes is worthwhile, as negative attitudes are often internalized.”

If your child doesn’t ever interact with kids who have special needs, consider the benefits that go far beyond the usual gifts of friendship. Getting to know a child with special needs could open her mind so that she grows up to be more accepting and appreciative of individual differences. Having a “diverse” group of friends—important to many parents today—isn’t just about kids of all races, it’s about kids of all abilities, too. A friendship like this could also sharpen your child’s communication skills, teaching her how to better interact with others. It could give her a deeper understanding of what it means to overcome challenges, and that everyone has their own unique value in this world.

I reached out to David Quilleon, a Vice President at Best Buddies International, to ask about benefits the nonprofit has seen for non-disabled friends (the group creates opportunities for one-on-one friendships for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities). As an answer, he shared a letter he’d received from a chapter that operates out of a middle school in Tennessee. It noted, “Our student volunteers learn about leadership, community service, and most importantly, they become advocates for their new friend to be afforded equal opportunities within the school culture.”

A-men.

I think I speak for most moms of kids with special needs when I say we’re not looking for pity playdates here. We’re looking for genuine connections. Yes, it’s going to take a little more effort on your part. You will most likely have to explain to your child why mine walks and talks differently than other kids. That said, you could also talk about the ways my child is the same to help bridge the gap—after all, kids with special needs are kids first. They like to play with toys, watch TV, eat ice-cream, listen to music, and tell knock-knock jokes — same as any other kid.

Perhaps you won’t know exactly what to tell your child about my child. No worries there—feel free to ask. I most likely wouldn’t have known what to say, either, before I had my son and became a first-hand expert on the topic. Parents of kids with special needs are not expecting you or your child to act perfectly. Perfection, as we we well know, is not reality.

Just think, think of all the good friendships like this could do. Then go ahead and encourage your child to approach a child with special needs at the playground—a simple “Hi!” is always a great ice-breaker. If you have a child in middle or high school, find out about local Best Buddies programs (they’re nationwide), or look into the e-Buddies pen pal program for kids ages 10 and up.

You could also ask around at your kid’s school, or in your neighborhood or social media circles, whether anyone knows of a mom of a child with special needs who’d like to arrange a playdate with your child. I know how grateful the mom would be, because I am that mom.

Image source: iPhoto/kali9 

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