Helping our children with disabilities make friends can be harder than we would like. Sometimes other moms don’t understand our children’s needs, so it is hard for them to help their children be friends with our children. And many of the behavioral, sensory, medical or other issues our children face can make it hard for them to make and keep friends. But like all kids, kids with disabilities need friendships with their peers. And as the old saying goes, friendships come in all shapes and sizes

You might be saying, “I know my child needs friends, but how do I overcome all of the barriers?” I hope that by sharing some of the experiences my daughter and I have had, you’ll see that the barriers can be overcome. It’s not always easy, but it is so worth it.

Tips and ideas for playdates

If your little one needs to be in the home environment due to medical or health concerns, try finding a friend who can come over for a one-on-one playdate. After all, just as all kids are not the same, all playdates are not the same.

A way to deal with sensory issues during a playdate is to choose a calm place and time, like going to a park at a time that it is less crowded. To help with any physical limitations, try to find an accessible park or playground in your neighborhood.

To help head off behavioral issues, schedule the playdate at a time when you know your child isn’t going to be tired or hungry. Skipping nap or having lunch during a playdate can be hard to handle for some kids with disabilities. 

I’ll be the first to admit, it took some time. I remember a few playdates where I felt like pulling my hair out as my daughter screamed every time the other child tried to play with one of her toys. But slowly she was able to play side-by-side with the friends who came over.

We accomplished this little by little through structured play. The other mom and I would sit and play with the little ones so we were able to redirect their attention and help with any social issues.

I also always tried to prepare my daughter for the playdate. We would talk about who was coming over or who we were going to meet, and talk about what we would be doing on the playdate.  

Also see Planning Playdates for Your Child.

Mommy and Me and other parent groups

If your child is still an infant look into Mommy and Me classes. Both you and your child will meet new people, and those relationships can last through the preschool years and beyond.  

My daughter and I started attending a Mommy and Me music class. The first semester she sat in my lap the whole time, just watching the other kids. She couldn’t sing along, but she could hear and feel the music. Next we tried a Mommy and Me dance class. Could she dance? Nope! But she could sit in my lap and let me sway her to the music or be in my arms as we “danced” around the room. She was participating in her own way, while being in a social setting with her peers, watching and learning.

With a little Internet searching, you can probably find other kinds of parents’ groups in your area. While you and other parents sit and get acquainted, the kids can enjoy the sights and sounds of a new environment.

One of the first things you might do is look around your area for playgroups of your child’s age. Visit your local recreation center or YMCA to find classes. You will never know how well your child can make friends if you never give her the chance.

Final thoughts and advice

Don’t make excuses. I was famous for making excuses about why my daughter and I couldn’t participate in activities. But I quickly found out that when neither my daughter nor I had friends, it was very boring and isolating for us both. 

Don’t get me wrong—it wasn’t all rainbows and smiles. There were times when we would get to the park to meet other kids and my daughter would get sick before we could even get out of the car. Is it frustrating to have to leave five minutes after arriving for an outing you’ve spent a lot of time planning? At first, you bet it is. But any parent of a child with a disability will tell you, the experience trains you to be flexible and deal with whatever comes your way.

And sometimes, what comes your way can be surprisingly pleasant. Some days, my daughter would last all afternoon at the park and never want to leave. She would swing while all the other kids ran silly around her—she thought they were hilarious!

Did other parents look at my child differently? Sometimes. I learned to respond in one of two ways, depending on how I sized them up. If I thought they were willing to understand, I let them know about my daughter and what her likes and dislikes were; if I felt like the other parents were just clueless, I ignored the stares. My daughter and I would just continue to have fun, and then be on our way. 

As I write this, my daughter is now 10 years old and she has some great friends. Does she do everything her friends do? No. But she does enjoy their company. And she has found her own way to join in the activities that all 10-year-old girls love.