Social interactions and relationships/friendships play an important role in everyone’s life. When one has no friends, life spans are significantly reduced. Friendship is not a luxury, it is essential to life. Despite this fact, the social networks of friends and intimate relationships for children with disabilities are often smaller than are the social networks of children without disabilities. Probably because we ourselves are not very comfortable with children/people who are different and we try to avoid them.
The thought of a special needs child probably brings vivid pictures to our minds, whether it is of the autistic boy next door, the girl with Down Syndrome or the kid in a wheelchair. The unease we have stays with us even after the interaction is over. Now, the important question that arises is: Why the discomfort? Do we feel sad for the child? Or is it the lack of our ability to empathise with them?
Unfortunately, often the same feeling is transferred to our children, and they become even more insecure, thus, barring any social contact with differently abled children.
It is not only regular children but sometimes children with disabilities who may have unique barriers that prevent them from developing and maintaining interactions; for example, children with autism have difficulties in social and communication skills which is essential for social interaction and making friends. Many children on the spectrum don’t want to make friends and many who do, are at a loss on how to make friends. Similarly, a child who has physical difficulties/limitations may not be able to play physical games, and, thus, feel left out. These barriers, however, are not insurmountable provided the community is willing to make an effort as it’s not so easy for children with special needs to find meaningful friendships with others.
So, what is to be done? There is no specific guide on how to interact with a child who has special needs, or for that matter any child in particular, they all are different. One does not require special aptitude or training to interact with a special needs child and it should be kept in mind that he/she is a child first and the special needs part comes later. But there are some basic things that can, and should, be kept in mind:
Open your hearts and be less hesitant: People tend to avoid differently abled children mainly because they do not know what to say, how to talk to them or whether to say anything at all. Even as parents who are bringing up children with special needs, there are times they fall flat on their face with certain parenting techniques that annoy or upset their child. So, stop being hesitant and embrace the love and affection that your child shows for you. Holding back on interaction would create a void that would be hard to fill up once a child grows up.
Be patient and understand the child first: Like any other ordinary child, a special needs child requires a lot of patience and tact, however, with the latter, the requirement might just be a little more than usual. Simply because you have a child with special needs does not always bring patience naturally, but as a parent, one needs to make a conscious effort and build it up. While raising children with special needs, it is important how one supports mental, emotional and physical growth, especially since parents are the first — and the most constant — teachers in a child’s life. It is important to first get the child’s attention to create a rapport, depending on the child’s special needs; it may be necessary to take the child’s hand, place a hand on the child’s shoulder or even touch each other’s face to make a proper introduction. Rapport-building techniques will differ with each child and the parents and teachers need to be innovative to catch the attention of the child.
Understanding temperaments, we all have moods don’t we? All children have ‘temper tantrums’, and if that tantrum happens at a public place like a mall, shop or a restaurant, parents get the feeling of resentment and embarrassment and, sometimes, enraged because they feel that their parenting skills are being judged and looked down upon. We know that a special child may or may not be able to do many things, but sometimes due to their disability, the parents pamper the child and give in to their temper tantrums. This might cause behavioral difficulties and the child might become unmanageable in the long run. When your child has special needs, those behavioral storms can be more confounding, more damaging, and more difficult to interpret. This adds to the stress and may put a strain on the relationship of parent and child. Thus, from the beginning, it is of utmost importance that the child should know the limit. Furthermore, there are many appropriate ways to handle tantrums, than giving in. This can include distracting the child and diverting his mind towards the activity that the child enjoys.
Make them feel normal, yet, keep in mind that they are a bit different: Being different is not a bad thing, it simply is being different from others; and with special needs children, it is essential that everyone should try interacting with them as normally as possible. A positive attitude is the single-most important quality for anyone who works with children with special needs. Many highly trained specialists are unable to interact with children because of their negative attitude and assumptions, but some people with no experience or training with special children are able to create a rapport instantaneously and are able to work with the child. A smiling face and humour go a long way in releasing stress and building a child’s confidence.
Never force the child: Understanding the abilities and temperament of the child will help in creating a fruitful interaction with him/her, without pushing the child to do something he/she may not like. When the topic of interaction is of interest to the child, you would notice how much they would talk about it. Like with any relationship, it’s all about finding a common ground. For smaller or non–verbal children, physical games are more fun as they feel emotionally connected to the parent while playing. Games such as peek-a-boo, ball games, reading picture storybooks together, etc., are great ways to initiate interaction. A child always knows what he/she wants, and same is the case with children with special needs. So, it’s always a good idea to let them choose what they want to do in the “together time”, instead of the parents always deciding. It can start with simple things that the child enjoys doing. In fact, letting the child choose will help them him/her connected and listened to, and it’s a lovely way to boost their self-esteem. Also, you’ll help to fill a very special need — one that everybody has — the need for good friends.