Social Inclusion for Preteens with Special Needs
It's hard to be a preteen – especially one with special needs.
The challenges that preteens with disabilities experience are related to both the characteristics of their disabilities and the lack of opportunities they typically have to observe ongoing interactions between peers without disabilities, believes Dr. Brian Abery, a researcher and the Coordinator of School Age Services for the Institute on Community Integration at the University of Minnesota.
Tips for Parents
The following tips, offered by Dr. Abery will empower parents to smooth the path for their preteen's social inclusion:
1. Introduce your child to the community and others in it as soon as possible.
Parents who have children with disabilities need to make a special effort to get their child out into the community. Yes, this takes additional effort, but introducing your child to the clerk at the corner store, to the person who cuts your hair, to neighbors and friends, as well as other children begins to open up a social environment for the child.
It will also likely result in people asking questions of you. Some of these may be appropriate; others may seem insensitive. Try to answer each as well as you are able, keeping in mind that each time this occurs, it provides you with an opportunity to debunk myths and misconceptions that others may hold of your child and others with disabilities.
2. Allow your child to take some risks.
Developing social relationships is a risky process for anyone with or without a disability. At times we reach out to others and they do not return the hand of friendship. If one doesn't try, however, social relationships are not possible. In addition, as children grow older some of the activities they enjoy and which will potentially provide the opportunity for the development of friendships may seem risky. One needs to balance the risks children are allowed to take with the possible positive benefits that may accrue from such activities. A sprained wrist, for example, that might occur when skateboarding is a small price to pay for the development of a lasting friendship.
3. Be willing and able to advocate for the social inclusion of your child.
Advocacy may need to take place within the context of your child's school or park and recreation programs. Learn how to effectively ask for the supports your child needs in order to feel socially included. In school this may entail requesting that your child be placed in the same general education classroom as a peer who has started to initiate a friendship. Within a recreation program it might involve your talking to the instructor about the support needs of your child and adaptations that would enhance his or her participation.
4. Starting at an early age, expose your child to as many recreation and leisure pursuits as possible.
People tend to develop friendships with peers whom they view as having similar interests. Make sure your child has sufficient experiences to engage in the types of recreation and leisure activities preferred by peers so that he or she can develop interests and preferences in specific activities.
5. Make sure your child has the opportunity to have similar experiences as his or her peers.
Peers often assume that children with disabilities do not have similar interests. One of the reasons why this is often the case is that such children have not had the opportunity to experience the same life activities as their peers. This includes attending popular community events, watching the same television programs, listening to the same music, etc. If parents are interested in stimulating social relationships, it is critical that their children have access to these events.
6. Make friendship development a family priority.
Schedule time for your child to play with other children. In order for children with and without disabilities to develop social relationships, they need to spend unstructured time together outside of school. Given everyone's busy schedules, this is unlikely to happen unless parents play an active role in facilitating such opportunities. Invite some of your child's classmates over to your house after school for recreational activities, take a group of children to a sporting event or go on a hike together.
7. Find ways to assist peers to effectively interact with your child.
Children without disabilities often avoid their peers with disabilities because they are unsure as to how to interact with them. Serve as a role model for such children demonstrating cooperative play, effective communication and teaching children how your child expresses reciprocity.
8. Search out inclusive recreation programs.
Although segregated recreation activities for persons with disabilities are appropriate at times, they do little to enhance one's social inclusion. Contact local advocacy and self-advocacy organizations within your area to find out where inclusive programs are available and what organizations run them well.
9. Insist that friendship and social inclusion goals are included in your child's Individualized Education Program (IEP).
Despite the fact that research indicates that a supportive social network of friends and acquaintances is critical for positive developmental outcomes on the part of children with disabilities, many schools consider social inclusion and friendship development to be "extras" or "fluff." As a result, they rarely get around to working on what you as a parent may view as a goal that is critical to your child's development. Including friendship development as a goal in your child's IEP obligates the school to develop and implement supports in this area.
10. Search for funding that will support the social inclusion of your child.
Children with significant disabilities often need supports in order to take part in community-based programs that can provide the context for the development of social relationships. In some cases these can be provided by the organization or parents. In others, it is better for a professional to provide such supports. Many families now have available flexible funding to support their child with a disability and can draw on this funding for such support. Check with your county social services organization for information.
11. Make it a point to get to know other families in your area/neighborhood.
Children often develop friendships because their parents are friends and they are brought together on numerous occasions because the adults in their lives are interacting. The additional care-giving demands of raising a child with a disability, however, often make it difficult for parents to lead active social lives. Parents need to consider continuing to stay active in the community not only to develop supports for themselves but also as a strategy to bring together their child with peers.
What Are Some Things Parents Shouldn't Do?
1. Don't force your child on others or others on your child.
Given all of the research that has been undertaken on the development of friendships, we still don't know for certain what makes some people "click together" and become friends and others not. Friendships need to be based upon mutual choice whether they are between people with or without disabilities.
2. Don't over-protect your child.
There are some risks that accompany attempts to enhance social inclusion. All of us are rejected at times and you can be sure that similar experiences will occur with children with disabilities. Such experiences, however, are a part of life and must be accepted as a necessary evil if inclusion is the goal.
3. Don't engage your child in activities that are not socially valued by his or her peer group.
Recreational and leisure activities provide an excellent environment for social inclusion. However, the activities in which children with disabilities take part need to be socially valued by peers if they are to be effectively used as a context to achieve this goal. This means that a parent needs to be aware not only of the interests of one child but of the preferences of similar age peers within the community.
4. Don't enroll your child in activities that are not intrinsically interesting to him or her.
Social interaction occurs naturally when children are enjoying what they are doing. It is much less likely to occur if a child is engaging in activities that are not preferred. Base your child's participation on his or her preferences, likes and dislikes, rather than your convenience or what you assume will be interesting to your child.
5. Don't hover.
Nothing kills opportunities for social inclusion like the presence of an adult.
6. Don't give up.
Failures are almost certain to occur. If one persists however, the rewards will be more than worth the effort. There are children and young adults without disabilities who are willing and able to develop and maintain meaningful social relationships with peers with disabilities. These relationships have the potential to enrich the lives of both parties.