What is the true meaning of friendship? This is something I’ve struggled to define, as I raise a child with special needs. Watching Abram mature and grow through different stages of development, I’ve learned that friendship is something unique to each individual. For instance, friendship is simple to me – a relationship of trust and understanding between two people. For my daughter, Macie, a friend is someone who cares and will lend a listening ear. For Abram, friendship holds a much deeper level of meaning: a friend is someone he can put his complete and utter trust in to fully accept him as he is, without any fear of being treated differently.
Children and adults on the autism spectrum are not known for having “traditional” social skills, and all have very unique ways in which they handle social situations or friendships. You could meet 150 children with special needs and they are all going to respond and act completely different from each other. So, I can only speak to what I’ve seen and experienced with Abram. He has always been unaware of everyone around him. Abram doesn’t seem to need or want friendships and relationships the way other children do.
As a mother, this has been hard for me to accept and understand, as you want your child to be able to play and have friends. I had to come to terms with the fact that Abram is not going to have the deep friendships that I have or want to be engaged in social activities like his sister. But as his mother, I still want Abram to learn social skills so that he can be understood and accepted by other children. Below are three ways I’ve been able to help nurture friendships for Abram and find social settings that are more comfortable on his terms:
- Model play
When Abram was younger, I would model play with my daughter, teaching Abram how to play with others through example. I would also use the hand-over-hand technique Abram’s therapist taught us, to physically pick up a toy with my hand over Abram’s to show him what to do.
- Be open to different social mediums
This can differ from child to child, but finding non-traditional social mediums to nurture interactions has been beneficial to Abram. He will interact more when he knows you’re aware of who he is and has time to get comfortable around you. Carpooling and inviting other children his age to tag along to the movies or dinner have been great social mediums for Abram. He can be in control of how much or little he interacts, while still being present and involved.
- Group activities
Abram fears that he will not be understood. He connects much better with adults versus children his own age because he knows that adults understand his differences and won’t bully him. Group activities where an adult is present, such as Jiu Jitsu, wrestling and band, work well for Abram. He is able to be around the same kids on a regular basis, with the comfort of knowing that an adult is supervising and leading the class. As Abram gets more comfortable with the same group of kids, we look for ways to extend the interactions. On his birthday last year, we invited the kids from Abram’s Jiu Jitsu class to a casual dinner at Chick-fil-A so they could interact in a different environment.
To nurture friendships for your child with special needs, it’s important to be open and accepting: open to finding social settings that are comfortable for your child and accepting that they may have different social needs from other children. At the end the day, we, as parents, just want our children to be liked and understood. What have you learned about what friendship means to your child with special needs? Please share your tips for helping your child build relationships on their terms!