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Special needs: Help your child make friends outside school

Maureen used to be obsessed with baseball -- and then she had children. After she welcomed her son, Charlie, and his extra chromosome, she discovered her passion for writing about Down syndrome and disability-related issues.

With two tod...

Broaden your child's circle of friends

An amazing quality about children is their innocence and willingness to accept almost anything because they don't know any differently. (Except broccoli — how do they know not to like broccoli?)
Broaden your child's circle of friends
Photo credit: DenKuvaiev/iStock/360/Getty Images

As mom to a toddler with Down syndrome, I long for Charlie to have both typically-developing friends and friends who have their own different abilities and struggles. But let's face it, parenting is hard enough without adding "find my kid more friends" to the to-do list. Here are six ways to introduce your child to new people in fun ways.

Play matchmaker

I inherited my mom's ability to talk with virtually anyone and plan to embarrass my children with this skill, to keep the family tradition intact. But sometimes this benefits my children, too. Recently, I was camped in a coffee shop to write when a mom and her daughter sat down behind me. The 2-year-old's name was Charlie, just like my son with Down syndrome. Her energy and precociousness reminded me of my daughter, who is also 2 years old. I struck up a conversation with the mom and realized the three toddlers would have so much fun together. We exchanged emails and are planning a play date soon.

Sometimes you just have to follow your gut. In talking, I could tell this mom was engaged and we shared similar discipline philosophies. Both parent and child felt like a good fit for us.

Consider your friends' children

Broaden your child's circle of friends
Photo credit: Jenny Thompson

Sometimes the most important initial connection comes at the parent level. Jenny Thompson's daughter, Ella, is 8 years old and has Down syndrome. One of her best friends is Makayla (see photo).

"It’s an interesting relationship as Makayla's dad is one of [my husband's] best friends from high school. Makayla is about a year younger than Ella and has a younger brother with cerebral palsy. Their family has gone on vacation with us a few times and all the kids have a great time together and are always looking forward to more visits."

Added bonus? You get your own play date with a friend while your children play together!

Find support after receiving a Down syndrome diagnosis >>

Look to a higher power

"Most of Ella's friendships outside of school come from church," Thompson shares. Her husband, Kevin, is a pastor who also has a blog.

"While she's been in gymnastics, it was harder to develop relationships there," Thompson shares. "But at church, she has several little girls she's with each Sunday morning and each Wednesday night, and some of them come to our home group on Sunday nights. Those relationships end up working out easier for us (vs. school relationships) because we know the parents of those girls, making it easier for us to allow Ella to go visit for a play date when invited. Even though she's 8, we’re still very protective of who and where she can visit."

Get active, then watch what happens

Sure, sports teams can provide a naturally-occurring play date, but I'm talking about getting out in your neighborhood. Go for walks, visit your local playgrounds and check out children's museums. Chances are, you'll encounter parents with a similar interest in their child's growth and social development. If another child seems drawn to your child, nurture the interest by engaging both parent and child. Does it feel like speed dating for kids' friends? Maybe. But trust your instinct, and you both might find a new friend.

Does inclusion benefit children without disabilities? >>

Play the field

Not every recreational activity will lend itself to forming friendships (e.g., one-on-one swimming lessons), but a variety of sports programs can teach teamwork and introduce your child to new kids with all kinds of different abilities. Check out your community's parks and recreation department, as well as local YMCAs and libraries, which often provide events for same-aged children.

Ask for help

My son has weekly physical, occupational and speech therapy sessions, and both our therapists and our Early Intervention service coordinator have introduced us to local families who have children of the same age or with the same diagnosis.

Community advocacy groups also can introduce you to local families who have experience with your child's different abilities, and most have Facebook pages where families can interact and start to get to know each other.

Safety tips

  • Children with intellectual delays are at greater risk of sexual abuse, so remain vigilant and insist on knowing the adults who will oversee any play date.

"We prefer to invite friends to our house for a few visits before allowing Ella to go to another friend's house," Thompson shares. "In addition to [helping us develop] relationships with the parents, it allows us to observe how Ella interacts with her friend."

  • Make sure a Facebook page is private before sharing any personal information.
  • Never post your address online. Instead, send a private message or exchange private messages with your personal email address.

Tell Us:

How have you helped your child with special needs make friends outside school? Share your experience in the comments below!

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