“It’s hard to make friends when you’re different,” says AJ Starr.
As we acknowledge today as “Make A Friend Day” I sadly report that too few children with disabilities have friends. However, we know that typical children who regularly interact with children with special needs are more positive, empathic and even less fearful.
My vision over 30 years ago when I began BNI Happy Hearts Inclusive Preschool was to provide our students with special needs an opportunity to interact and model their typical peer. Many, many parents tell me that years later their typical child has a deeper understanding of the importance and value of diversity because they attended Happy Hearts preschool.
My nephew, Joe Pinto, serves as an example of the impact of friendships between typically developing children and children with special needs. Joe, currently a junior in high school, attended Happy Hearts preschool. Always an advocate for persons with disabilities, Joe founded a Best Buddies chapter at McDowell High School. Through Best Buddies, the students learn about leadership, community service, and most importantly, they become advocates for their new friend to be afforded equal opportunity in the school culture.
I asked my son Ryan last night what he liked about having friends. He said, “Friends are so exciting. They do fun things with me. Friends make me feel happy, help me a lot and care a lot for me.” He quickly made a list of his friends. “Mark (his mobile therapist) calms me down, helps me with anger. Andrew helps me exercise and ski better. Bryant is lots of fun to be with and goes to action movies with me. Ryan F. plays Wii with me.” I asked Bryant what he found rewarding about being Ryan’s friend. “You can laugh with each other, share interests and have fun doing things together,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot from Ryan and we have both grown through our friendship.”
What can you do to encourage friendships between typically developing children and children with special needs?
- Reach out to parents with children with special needs and encourage a playdate. Make a genuine connection.
- Volunteer with service organizations who support children and adults with disabilities
- Be a mentor to a Special Olympic athlete
- Welcome persons with disabilities to worship at your church or synagogue
All of us want to have friends. Friends boost self-esteem, reduce stress, offer emotional and social support, and provide a safe ground to explore new areas. As Henry Ford aptly commented, “My best friend is the one who brings the best out of me.”
You too can follow AJ’s lead and make a friend today. Please share ways that you have been successful in fostering friendships.