The thought of a special needs child probably brings vivid pictures to your mind. Whether they're of the autistic boy next door, the girl with Down Syndrome who was in your 2nd grade class, or the wheelchair sports team you saw practicing last week, these are the sort of images and thoughts that tend to stay with us long after the initial experience is over.
It's precisely because people with special needs stand out to us so much that you should help child make friends with them. The lessons your child will learn from such friendships will stay with him, and the relationship itself has the potential to be one he treasures for years to come.
1. Teach Compassion
In a world where anyone who struggles with anything will sometimes face persecution because of their struggle, you have a unique opportunity to teach your children compassion. Many parents want to help their child understand that they don't need to tease or make fun of people with special needs, nor should they ignore them or pretend they don't see someone struggling.
Having a relationship with a child who struggles is an ideal way to help your child feel appropriate compassion, and also how to interact and aid when that is necessary and desired. It will also give them a chance to encounter these struggles firsthand, instead of just watching them from afar.
2. Expand Their Definition of "Normal"
As an adult, you know that "normal" can encompass just about anything, but your children may not have learned this lesson yet. Introducing them to special needs kids will help them start to think differently about what it means to be human and what they can expect from other people.
Kids tend to think of themselves and their friends as normal. If they are only friends with kids whose lives are much like their own, they'll never learn about the diversity that exists in the real world. When they learn that some kids have trouble reading, and others have trouble running or playing and others struggle in other ways, they will be more likely to accept those kids and their struggles as something to expect in life, rather than staring and feeling confused when they see someone having a hard time.
3. Help Them Understand Another Perspective
It's one thing to see a special needs child struggling and another to understand those struggles. While your child won't experience his friend's struggles as his own, he will feel them much more deeply when they pertain to someone he knows and cares about.
Teaching your child to actively help a special needs child will enhance this process. It's good for your child to see exactly what it takes for his friend to learn to read, or feel some of what it's like to never be able to play basketball. There's no need to torture your child, but helping him understand why people are the way they are will go far as he develops more interpersonal skills in life.
Dos and Don'ts of Making the Introduction and Fostering a Friendship
- Seek out the parents of special needs children to help foster the relationship.
- Go with your child the first time, particularly if she's nervous.
- Talk to your child about what to expect before she meets her new friend.
- Give your child some ideas about what to say, how to act, etc.
- Process your child's experience with her. Ask questions and give her time to answer.
- Force the relationship. You can insist on a meeting or two, but don't make it go beyond that.
- Make your child do anything she's truly uncomfortable with.
- Be condescending the the special needs child.
- Do or say anything about a special needs child that you wouldn't want your child to do or say.
- Push the lessons too hard. Let your child learn for herself.
This post was included in The Homesteading Carnival #157.