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Helping Special Needs Kids Make Friends

It's not always easy to form crucial bonds with peers. But parents can help foster connections to help their children learn, grow and have fun.

Michael Campbell plays baseball and soccer, hangs out with his friends, enjoys video games – and is like any other 14-year-old-boy. His mom, Carol, didn't think his life would ever be this way after he was diagnosed at 7 with Asperger's Syndrome.

"We were told he probably wouldn't have friendships. It's the exact opposite. He has friends. He gets invited out with them," says Campbell of Berkley, Michigan. "We let Mike be Mike and we help foster the friendships just like any other parent would."

Here's a look at what parents can do to help their children with special needs do just that.

Pals are important

"It is human nature to want friends," says Stephanie Harlan, director of the Autism Connections at the Judson Center in Royal Oak. "Humans need to be with other people, share their emotions and interact."

But children with special needs have more obstacles to overcome. Especially those with autism and Asperger's, who lack some of the interaction skills. If not addressed, this can impact their entire lives.

"The rates of depression are high among those with autism and Asperger's. They are often teased because they are by themselves," Harlan explains. "If the kids can have one other friend with them, the chance that they are picked on drops astronomically."

Peer friendships allow children to bond with individuals other than family members, adds Linda Bull, therapist, founder and co-owner of the Mental Fitness Center in Rochester, who specializes in children and adolescents with special needs.

"Children are often more likely to model peer behavior," she says, "and it can be a positive experience for a child who may be shy or introverted to develop."

Finding friendship

Campbell of Berkley browsed the web and stumbled on the Judson Center. She enrolled Michael in its one-on-one program and playgroups.

"He's going to have to learn to get along in this world," Campbell says, and the Judson Center is known for the social experience it can provide kids with special needs.

Harlan also found plenty of books that provide insight into helping kids with special needs develop the skills they need.

"It's really important that parents understand how their kid's personality works," Harlan adds. This can help parents identify their child's interests and find others who like similar things –video games, card games, movies, music – and help them share and communicate about those common interests.

Harlan says that while the ultimate goal for kids who come to Judson is freeform interaction, it works best to start with a structured program and offer activities to do together and choose peers for them to interact with.

Schools sometimes offer that environment, too. Bull says districts can provide info about options for kids with special needs and friendships, including peer pal programs, Boy and Girl Scout troops and sport teams. She says many ancillary centers offer social skills groups and assistance, too.

Develop skills

Kids who come to the Judson Center are assessed to determine what level of engagement they have. Counselors take concepts and break them down into simple steps and repeat them to enforce the appropriate behavior.

"We work with them and gradually introduce peers into the relationship," Harlan says. Peer pals – kids without special needs at the same developmental level – serve as examples. These pals work on taking turns by playing games and activities that build a foundation. Harlan says the kids often form a bond and end up being friends outside of the sessions.

"We teach them life skills that don't come naturally," Harlan says. "They can go back to their schools and home and apply the skills. The program is also teaching the parents how to encourage their child to make friends and maintain relationships."

Role of parents

It's key that parents stay involved – and tuned in – to ensure their kids are developing the needed skills – and that the friendships are healthy. Plus, kids sometimes need a little encouragement, especially if they have special needs.

"Sometimes Mike needs more encouragement," Campbell says. When he says he doesn't want to try something, she encourages him to participate and if he doesn't like it, he doesn't have to continue.

Bull says it's important for parents to know their kids, from likes to dislikes and their emotions, and determine what situations they're comfortable in.

"They may need extra exposure to children their own age, such as play dates or trips to the library," Bull says. "They may need social stories to teach sharing and visuals to remind them not to hit or spit. Providing this support is crucial for these children, but being mindful and maintaining perspective can be just as important."

Keep lessons going

It's also the parent's responsibility to help kids identify when the relationship isn't working – maybe due to the nature of the activities, or for other reasons.

"Some kids with special needs don't recognize when they are being teased or other kids are taking advantage of them," Harlan says. She encourages parents to help the child spot the cues for an unhealthy relationship.

When her son doesn't mesh with another child, Campbell doesn't blame herself or Michael. She just explains not all people get along, and it's time to move on.

Harlan says sometimes the friendships will fade away, and that's OK.

"As you grow older, your interests are going to change. Some of the kids will continue to stay friends," she says. "The friendships they had teach them the foundational skills for developing more."

Mar 3, 2011 04:06 pm
 Posted by  Carolyn

For our son the social skills classes never really worked because they were children he only saw occassionally and were usually not from his community.

So we created a circle of support for him at his school and it wasn't that difficult. We created what we called Fun Fridays, and each week at lunch, my husband or I would host a play group with the parties changing each week. The only constant was our son. We did everything from board games to playing football, and also letting the kids choose too what they wanted to do. In doing this, they kids were also empowered to support each other.

The nice thing about creating something like this as well is that there are many at risk children within our classrooms at school. Some may feel shy, not connected, unable to also have a voice due to other concerns. But this allowed the students to also get to know each other in a relaxed setting and not be judged by peer pressure.

We also created a webpage for our son specifically, but there was also a place to show the Friday Fun group and what they did. This was an amazing thing to watch blossom because the students could post on this about the day or supports they provided each other. It was protected on the school's webhost and the students could only access it from the classroom. We also filled the page with some cool things that Nick was doing like photos after going on trips, art work, etc. So there was always something to discuss.

This was something too that was part of the IEP and we sent home a permission slip. All the parents in the class signed on to participate. It was so well liked, we closed the year with an entire class party. That was a fourth grade class and those friends supported him through high school and still do. It was amazing to see some of the other children also do well because of it and the teacher was so, so appreciative. Classroom behavior also improved.

Just wanted to provide an option that worked for us.

Carolyn

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