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Socialization of a child is something that is typically a natural phenomenon, but for children with disabilities, making friends and forming relationships can be especially challenging. Here’s how to work past those obstacles.
The importance of socialization
One of life’s biggest joys is the comfort and confidence we find in others. Most of us – either by nature or nurture – are social creatures that seek the companionship of others, through friendship, romance, careers and family.
For children with disabilities, reaching out to form relationships can be difficult. Sometimes, a child may physically be unable to take part in traditional activities with other young people. Other times, a child may perceive his or her challenges as an aspect of their lives that will doom them to loneliness and isolation. In most cases, this can cause a crisis of confidence in a child that parents will want to subvert.
But what kinds of opportunities to socialize a child with disabilities exist? When they are available in the child’s community, how can a parent go about determining the suitability of that opportunity?
Those questions have a myriad of answers; and most of those are going to depend on a child’s abilities and interests. One answer is that opportunities exist all around, even if they are not immediately apparent or easily found.
Seeking professional help
Social acumen is a bigger part of life than most of us realize, and the good news is that professional help is available to parents.
Social therapy, a relatively new intervention pioneered in the late 1960s and 1970s, helps children develop strategies that will help him or her develop friendships as they grow older. Social therapy is based on groups, and the role of an individual within that group.
Facilitated by a social worker or psychologist, social therapy often takes place in a clinical setting with several children, or in an educational or recreational setting. The focus of therapy is to help children cope with and eliminate anxiety they may feel in social settings, and develop conversational skills. In short, it’s a primer on how to make friends and form relationships. Behavioral or developmental specialists may also provide counseling.
Children in social therapy learn to adapt to social situations through activities that are designed to spur interaction; creating a setting that is comfortable and supportive for all children is the cornerstone of social therapy programs. Social therapists will help children discover their interests and connect them with programs in the local community that provide such activities.
To be a well-rounded individual, a child must be able to interact socially with all persons, including children with and without disability, family members, adults, teachers, and professionals.
Luckily, there are opportunities for a parent to facilitate positive socialization opportunities, although it may require parents and caregivers to think out of the box.
That means that parents will need to ask themselves, “What are my child’s interests, and how can we work to make it possible for him or her to develop this interest with other like-minded children?” Adaptation and modification measures may be required for full inclusion.
Mentorship, buddy programs, playgroup settings, playgrounds, and support groups promote opportunities for interaction. Look for opportunities to engage the child. Use laughter and encouragement in awkward situations where other children may not know how to interact, but show curiosity and willingness to.
The real world
At a time before there were comprehensive therapeutic options available for parents to take advantage of, individuals with a child that faced challenges relied on an old truism: kids will be kids.
Growing up in Michigan in the 1950s, Duncan Wyeth was coping with a moderate case of Cerebral Palsy.
“I had leg braces growing up,” said the now 66-year-old Duncan, who lives in the town of Holt, Mich., near Lansing. “It made life difficult mostly because it made me different, but I never let it get me down.”
When he was about seven years old, Duncan asked for – and received – a bicycle. Duncan found it physically easier to ride the bicycle than to run or walk, and because of this, Duncan made friends.
“I remember that for me to be able to keep up with other children in the neighborhood, I needed the bike, even if it did have training wheels,” he said. “I was proud of my ability to ride the bike.”
A similar situation occurred for 51-year old Marty Turcios, who operates a golf program in Martinez, Calif., for disabled children and adults. As a child, he began to play golf.
“The first time I saw my father playing golf; I knew that I wanted to play,” said Marty. “And I knew that it was something I could do on my own.”
Both Duncan and Marty’s parents fostered their interest, and the payoff was immense for both men: They developed confidence, and have a shared avocation with other young people. Adults helped them form bonds with others.
Another important aspect of socialization was encouraged in Duncan and Marty’s case – the socialization took place with other children and individuals who did not face physical challenges, which physicians, therapists and researchers agree is necessary when helping children with special needs to grow and thrive in an environment that is inclusive.
The first impulse a parent may have is to look at programs in a community that are specifically designed for children with disabilities. These programs are often immensely beneficial because they are facilitated by trained individuals likely to be familiar with the physical and emotional needs of individuals with special needs.
Sports and arts programs have been reconceived in nearly all 50 states to allow children of all abilities to participate in baseball, soccer, hockey, painting, drawing and theater, to name a few. These programs can be a godsend to parents seeking opportunities for their child. A good place to find such programs are through the people that work with a child – educators, physical and occupational therapists, behavior and development specialists, and advocates – who are aligned with programs offered by community groups and non-profits. Industry organizations for the sport or activity of interest are another point of contact.
A parent shouldn’t stop there. If there’s a local summer arts program at the local community center, or a sports team getting ready to take the field, a parent should investigate further to find out how their child can participate, instead of focusing on how they may not be able to participate. Organizers likely have already accommodated or been involved in facilitating opportunities for inclusion.
Explain the child’s needs to the teacher or coach, then ask, “Have you ever coached or taught a child like mine?” Ask “What can I do to make sure my child can participate in your program?”
Where there is a will, there is a way
At times, an occupational therapist should be consulted when a work-around is warranted. As children grow, they want to handle everyday tasks to the best of their abilities without assistance or interference. They want to be accepted by their peers and participate socially with others. They also want to fully participate in activities with their peers.
An occupational therapist can evaluate the child’s abilities, investigate the requirements of the activity and develop adaptations, compensations, modifications or work-around to enable the child to participate. They focus on adapting to the child’s abilities, not their limitations. They will facilitate interaction, inspire self-confidence, teach coping strategies, and work with others to inspire acceptance.
Positive reinforcement from family and friends are an indelible part of a person’s childhood experience, and though not all children receive enough support, all children should be entitled to it. Sometimes, it’s easy to be an advocate for a child’s health and education, but a parent must also actively be an advocate for their child’s happiness.
When a child with a disability reaches adulthood, feelings about acceptance by others may linger. If young people learn to accept themselves during their formative years, explore interests, form friendships, accomplish, interact, and socialize at age-appropriate stages, it can help empower a sense of belonging when they’ve grown.