Fostering Friendships Between Special Needs Children and Their Peers

When high school junior Dan Walker was crowned homecoming king at Shawnee Mission East this year, a lot of people were cheering.

But no one was cheering quite like his best friend, fellow junior and varsity linebacker Jack Anderson.

“Dan and Jack really are an amazing pair,” says Dan’s mom, Sharon Walker.

The two boys have been best friends for 12 years, since they started kindergarten together at Brookwood Elementary in 2002. Dan was born with Down Syndrome. But never has his disability defined nor interfered with the two’s friendship. Jack has tied Dan’s shoes. Dan has made Jack birthday cards for the past 12 years straight. Their families have gone trick-or-treating together for many years.

The story of Dan and Jack’s friendship packs a solid life lesson: Friendship is stronger than labels or the social stigma that comes with having a disability. Fostering such a friendship simply requires that each person recognize the other as a human being who wants to be appreciated and encouraged.

Says Walker of her son and Jack, “They have a level of trust, caring, interest in each other's feelings and activities, and sense of ease with each other that have supported the special bond they have.”

Here are some ideas for how to foster friendships between special needs children and their peers.

Communicate openly with other parents. Families that are open to explaining the differences between their special needs child and that child’s peers are, in general, more successful in encouraging friendships to develop with their special needs kid.

But it’s not just about explaining the differences, points out Amy Allison, executive director of the Down Syndrome Guild of Greater Kansas City. It’s important to also key in on the similarities between a special needs child and his peer.

Jack’s and Dan’s parents have always communicated openly about the friends’ struggles and successes. “That honesty really helped deal with any issues that came up,” Walker says.

Put yourself in your child’s shoes. It’s true that children with special needs require more adult intervention. So what if your third grader’s play date with her autistic classmate means you, as the parent, need to be a bit more present? Rather than thinking about what you’ll miss by encouraging the play time, think about what your child and her friend and her friend’s parents will gain.

Confronting barriers between special needs children and their peers may be less about the kids themselves and more about the parents’ being uncomfortable, Allison says.

Promote inclusion, rather than exclusion, whenever possible. “I think some barriers to friendship happen because special needs kids are constantly being pulled out of class or have an adult with them,” Allison says.

An essay by an 11-year-old girl, Harriet, on the website, captures the frustration Harriet feels whenever her autistic classmate, Eleanor, is treated differently during day-to-day activities like lunch and recess. Eleanor constantly has an aide by her side. It is as if, Harriet writes, she has a box around her and can’t engage with the world because she is different.

“Everyone is different,” writes Harriet. “This box is a big barrier to her having real friends and her being a real friend.”

Lack of opportunities for friendships between special needs kids and their peers is often a result of special needs kids not being given the chance to engage.

Put your child out there. Kids need to learn how to not only get along, but also support those who are different from them. Moreover, kids must learn to recognize the myriad similarities that exist beneath those differences.

Sometimes, Allison points out, that learning process is painful or uncomfortable.

“Every child will face rejection at some point,” Allison says. A parent cannot control everything that happens during a play date.

Dan’s mom says she tried to make play dates as easy, fun and convenient as possible for Jack and his parents.

“You have to strategize,” Allison says. “A play date might mean running an errand with your special needs child and a friend,” an activity with more structure built in.

“Friendship is a spirit of goodwill between two people,” writes Karen Wang on, a website that provides support to families with special needs children. “Ability and disability don’t figure into that definition.”

Kate Meadows lives in Louisburg, where she throws her energy into writing, editing and being a mom to two boys.

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