I see you at the playground sighing of relief as you are about to take a seat on the bench. Now that your children are off to play, you don’t have to answer to to them whining at home:
"I have nothing to play with."
"What can I do?"
"Can you play with me?”"
I’m not going to lie. I’m jealous that you’re able to pull out your phone so that you can check your social media, and post Boomarang videos of your child making a sand castle and sliding down the slide on your Instagram Story.
Then there is me. Here I am at the same playground breaking out in a sweat as I shadow Bella following her every move. I am just a few steps away, enough to give her some independence but close enough to catch her if she falls on the uneven playground surface of sand.
I see a child look at her.
He is curious with her cooing sounds and screams of excitement.
He looks at her dog and wants to pet it but is hesitant because he sees the red harness with the bold print ‘DO NOT PET’.
He stares at her face and I’m assuming he’s looking at the drool dripping onto her bib.
He waves at her and she responds by lifting her right arm up and down twice, as practiced thousands of times in therapy. (Thank you IBI for the waving-hand program.)
He then says, “Want to play with me?”
My shoulders relax 2 inches from my ears. My heart melts.
Playgrounds are frightening places for me. I am always worried for Bella’s physical and emotional safety. If you see me at the playground, I probably look like this...
Before we got Bella’s wheelchair and her service dog Kadence, a simple walk to the community playground was a mini trip that required me to be equipped with:
Snacks to keep Bella occupied in case Bella wouldn’t be able to play because of the inaccessible playground structure.
Headphones to play her music if she had to wait to have her turn on the swing.
As I rewind to this day at the playground, I wish I could have pressed pause when this little boy stopped and invited Bella to play with him. This innocent moment was actually happening before my eyes. This boy wanted to be friends with Bella.
All children want to have friends. It is human to have the need for love and belonging. But it’s not so easy for children with special needs to find meaningful friendships with others. I’ve seen children shunned because of their physical differences. Others have social and communication deficits that make it difficult to start and keep friendships. I’ve even witnessed grown adults asking their children to stay away from Bella, as if she was diseased and defected. Check out this video I recently stumbled upon, as it is definitely an eye opener...
I reached out to some parents of children with special needs to ask their views on friendships:
“My daughter needs friends because she is human. Every human being needs friends. Every human being wants to be loved. Connecting and interacting with others is at the core of being human, regardless of ability, race, gender, or culture.”
-- Parent of a child with autism
“Just include them. Include them in the invitation. Include them in the activity in any way that works. They might do things differently, but they just want to feel included.”
-- Parent of a child with epilepsy
“My child needs friendship for the same reasons as everyone else needs. Friendships are a huge part of growing up and about learning about yourself and others. Connecting with others outside of your immediate family is such an important part of life that nobody can do without.”
-- Parent of a child with a developmental delay
"Children with special needs need friends the same reason ALL children (and all adults) need friends: because connection is key to our emotional success as human beings. Those who are connected - across society - end up healthier both emotionally and physically, and have better mental health outcomes and lower incidences of self-harm and destructive behaviour."
"As kids on the autism spectrum understanding social situations, navigating peer relationships (like lunch and recess), intuiting social expectations for things like birthday parties, etc. can all be challenging. All of these things are very anxiety-producing and the problem with anxiety is that it’s incredibly difficult to learn when you’re anxious. Having friends who AREN’T on the spectrum then becomes really important in supporting these learning goals, because strong friendship can help to alleviate that anxiety, allowing kids on the spectrum room to learn."
-- Parent of a child with autism
"Friendship is companionship. It’s sitting or laying together and holding hands. It’s entering into a space of creativity and imagination together. It’s finding ways of communicating that allows us to laugh and cry together. It’s making space and time for one another. It’s knowing each other’s weaknesses and strengths and looking out for their weaknesses and encouraging them in their areas of strength. It’s valuing one another.
It sounds like silence and chatter and giggles.
It feels like sneaky looks and silly faces.
It feels safe and known and precious and because of that it makes all of the rest of the outside world drift away."
-- Parent of a child with physical disabilities
"I think the way we teach our children is a reflection of ourselves. I have to admit I became more open to approach new people and life itself when I had my son. I almost believe he taught me - because it’s about being kind, understanding, loving, having patience, and always learning. It’s never easy but we always find a way to engage and to teach not only ourselves and our children but also strangers."
--Parent of a child with autism
“Friendship is loud!!! It's active and dynamic and patient and forgiving. Friendship is 'outside the box' and adaptable. Friendship means being willing to communicate in all sorts of ways. Friendship is with my child, right now, is a team effort but always FUN and joyful. We are generous and kind and making people happy, makes us happy. Friendship is really really important.”
-- Parent rare metabolic disease
Thank you to the families who shared their voice. I am very thankful that I have you in my circle of friends as I know we walk through this journey together. I’d like to end this post with some candid pictures that were shared with me from Bella’s teacher, Ms. Seckington. These pictures are reminders for me that kindness does exist.
Ms. Seckington continues to share her experience as a sibling to a brother with autism, and her expertise in the field of special education. If you are an educator, check out her latest article on Integration and Inclusion: 6 Steps to Student Success.
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