8 Tips For Children With Special Needs Who Struggle To Make Friends
By: Suzie Dalien, M.Ed.
While this article primarily focuses on how to help children with special needs adapt to a new environment, many of these tips can help children already established in communities. Moving to a new place as a child can be scary in and of itself – a new school, new neighbors, new social group – but for a child with special needs it can be downright terrifying. Forming crucial friendship bonds with peers is one of the essential building blocks to appropriate social skills, but it might be hard for your child to find a new set of children that will accept him for who he is.
All hope is not lost, however – there are tips and tricks you can use to help your child adjust to a new circumstance, helping to ease them into a smooth transition in a new town.
1. Speak with your child’s school about after-school activities.
If your child does not have a severe disability and is still able to interact with other children, the first place to look for age-appropriate friendship is the school your child will be attending. Most schools offer a family resource center that can point you in the right direction for activities and groups to attend, and your child’s special education class might also offer activities that permit bonding and friendship through teamwork and group participation.
2. Check with local organizations for special programs.
Does your new town have a YMCA or Boys & Girls Club? These are great organizations that promote a sense of community through activities centered on health, and often have play groups for different ages. If your child does not require constant assistance, letting them join a supervised group activity can foster a sense of independence as they seek to find commonalities with other children their same age, all while in a safe and nurturing environment.
3. Take them to a local park or playground.
Let’s face it – children just love to play; it’s how they learn, unwind and relax, and it can help clear the mind by focusing on certain pleasures that they love to engage in. If the park seems to be particularly busy on certain days or during particular times, try to introduce your child to the playground environment during slower times in which only one or two children might be playing. Check with your local parks and recreation department or city hall to see if there are activities geared towards children and then let your child know what’s available. If they are old enough, you can help them make an informed decision on what activities they feel comfortable participating in.
4. Ask about support groups.
Your local family support office might have information regarding support groups for your child with special needs that take place in the town. If one is available, see if they offer specialized playgroups or care while you attend the meeting; some groups offer these services so you can attend. Letting your child with special needs interact with other children in this group setting, is a great way to introduce them to potential new friends in a non-threatening environment.
5. Join a church.
If your family is religious, finding a new church environment to call your own can help your child with special needs interact with children who have the same beliefs. Finding common ground helps to break the ice in new situations, and churches are generally accepting of all members regardless of disability or circumstance. Your child is special and has unique sensitivities, but giving them a place to feel safe and special for a few hours a week can help them break out of their shell and talk to kids in their own way without fear of judgment.
6. Ask your child’s specialists to help.
If your child requires sessions with an occupational therapist, physical therapist or speech pathologist, consider asking their office whether or not they offer support groups for children with similar backgrounds. They might hold their own activities for children with special needs, and who better to know these children than the ones who work with them every day? If they do not offer such services, consider offering to assist with organization a function that will get everyone together.
7. Get involved in your child’s hobbies.
Some children with special needs have one thing they love doing above all others, such as art or soccer. Ask your child what they are interested in and then seek to find similar activities in your new town. Helping to integrate your child into a social setting through activities they know and love can soothe their fears about not being accepted.
8. Empower your child through positive reinforcement.
A child with special needs is often surrounded by a stigma that there is something inherently wrong with them, which can lead to feelings of insecurity and low self-esteem. Take some time before the move to let your child know what they should expect from their new environment, showing them how special and wonderful they are. When you arrive in the new town, center your focus on positive actions and words, like “You’re doing really well carrying those boxes!” or “Who can resist a bright smile like yours?” Making them feel good about themselves in whatever way possible can lead to feelings of spontaneity when it comes to dealing with new children.
A new house, a new town – it can be overwhelming for both your and your child with special needs, but should be viewed as a temporary setback only. Encouraging your child and keeping them informed throughout the moving process helps to calm fears and soothe the jagged nerves of everyone involved.
These are just a few tips you can use to introduce your child to a new environment while helping them make friends, but always make sure to adjust your expectations to your child’s own abilities and comfort level. Modifying the immediate world around them or acting as a friendship mediator while they get used to other children can help your child feel safe, comforted and loved while exploring how the power of friendship can soothe the soul and inspire confidence for years to come.
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