Helping our kids with disabilities find and establish friendships

Friends are an integral part of a happy and fulfilled life. We laugh with them, we cry with them, we play with them, we pray with them. As Charles Swindoll says, "I cannot even imagine where I would be today were it not for that handful of friends who have given me a heart full of joy. Let's face it, friends make life a lot more fun."

Helping our kids with disabilities find and establish friendships can be a challenge when they’re young, but it’s an even bigger challenge as they grow older and age out of the school system. However, it’s one of the most important things we, as parents, can do for our children!

It was difficult for our son, Joel, who has autism, to make friends as a youngster. Although he had a delightful personality at home he clammed up around others, especially his peers. Not to mention the fact that he became aggressive when his anxiety escalated. We tried to facilitate friendships at school and in the neighborhood, but it was hard. Until Sarah came along.

A twelve-year-old that lived near Joel’s summer day camp (Joel was five at the time), bored with the summer stretching out in front of her, Sarah walked into camp and offered to help (this was 25-plus years ago, when security wasn’t the issue it is today). Sarah fell in love with Joel, and over the course of that summer, a friendship was born. Sarah and Joel have bowled, played putt-putt, watched movies, vacationed, gone to Cincinnati Red’s and Chicago Cub's games, hiked, camped, and partied together. They’ve ridden trains, boats, and planes together. They’ve explored caves, flown kites, and sung karaoke together.

While this friendship may seem like it happened accidentally,  my husband and I intentionally nurtured it by inviting Sarah over to the house to hang out with Joel quite often in those early years. We invited her on vacations, and asked her to family birthday parties. She and Joel took it from there.

Which brings me to this great list of Tips for Building Friendships from PLAN,  an organization established in 1989 by families who wanted an answer to the question "What will happen to our sons and daughters with disabilities when we are gone?” According to PLAN’s mission statement, “Caring relationships are the key to safety, security and a good life."

Here are PLAN's tips, with my comments as Joel's mom:

  • Focus on gifts. Joel loves to sing and dance. He likes to be silly. He needs to be on the move. These are gifts that endear him to all who take the time to get to know him. What are your child's gifts?
  • Ask. Asking Sarah to hang out with Joel was one of the best things I ever did. Asking a twelve-year-old is a little different than asking an adult. But if we don’t ask, we don’t reap the benefits (which are a two-way-street!) Be brave. Ask for your child!
  • Share. What are some interests your child/young adult may share with someone else? Love baseball? Invite someone with a similar passion to a game (Joel and Sarah are going to a Cincinnati Red’s game tonight).
  • Be open. Many people with disabilities live a pretty programmed schedule. Open up that schedule! Yes, Joel needs structure in his life to be successful, but a surprise visit from Sarah can make his week.
  • Be intentional. Like I said, Joel’s friendship with Sarah might have looked accidental to the outsider, but we were very intentional about including Sarah in family events. Where can you be intentional in building a friendship for your child?
  • Repeat. According to PLAN, friendships are often born when we see the same people in our communities on a regular basis. Many of Joel's friendships have been made at church, where we meet up weekly to worship together.
  • Work. Many of us make friends where we work or volunteer. For years, Joel did a monthly volunteer activity with Starfire, a fantastic group in the Cincinnati area. He was always so excited, when he went to the Starfire dances, to see the friends he made on those volunteer outings.
  • Nuture. Start nurturing friendships for your child from an early age. Invite other children to your home on a regular basis. Joel was just five when he met Sarah. Today, he is 31 and she is 39. The friendship is still going strong.
  • Believe. According to PLAN, “Believing may be the greatest challenge that families face...try not to let fears dominate the opportunities.” I always believed that Joel would love singing in a choir, but with his behavioral challenges, I couldn’t find the right fit. When Joel turned 29,  the Best Buddies Friends Choir was formed at Miami University. I praise God I held onto the belief that Joel would thrive in the right choir. Thanks to a college student's vision, Joel has a whole new crew of friends (Thank you, Tanner McClellan!).
  • Remind. Remind yourself of the richness and beauty your child has brought to your family. When I remind myself of the gifts Joel brings to us, I know without a doubt that he can (and does!) bring those same gifts to the world.

I thank God every day for my friends. They brighten my days with laughter. They support me when life gets hard. They pray for me. They love me unconditionally.  Friends not only make life more fun, they are an integral part of a happy and fulfilled life.

Here's to new friendships for all of our children!

Reflection Question: What gifts could your child bring to a friendship?

Please check out my newest book, The Spiritual Art of Raising Children with Disabilities to find out how another mom found numerous ways to build friendships for her son!