We raise our children with special needs in a world where we advocate for inclusion daily. We work for school environments to support inclusion, we attend churches, play groups, birthday parties, and other social engagements where our child with special needs has typically developing peers. We strive to make sure their lives are as similar as their peers as possible. But should we also make sure our children with special needs have relationships with peers with special needs?
As the mother of a child with Down syndrome it’s important to me that my son grows up in an inclusive environment where he can learn from and teach his typically developing peers, however, it is also important to me that he develops friendships with people who share his diagosis.
Just as I need friends who walk this journey to support me because they understand things others moms don’t, my son will need support some day from those who understand even that which I can’t. I can tell you what it’s like to raise a child with Down syndrome, but I cannot know what it’s truly like to have Down syndrome.
Jenn Scott, whose son has Down syndrome, agrees. “It’s important for Sean so he knows he’s not alone in his challenges and much like our relationships as moms, he’s got people who just get it without him having to make them understand.”
But not everyone shares this view. Beth Goodman does not think that her son Joseph, who has Down syndrome, necessarily needs to have friends with Down syndrome.”He’s not going to spend the majority of his life with other individuals who have it, so it’s not necessarily a reliable way to find friends for him,” she says. “However, I, as his mother, need friends whose kids have Down syndrome. I need a sounding board of people who get it without me having to explain it.”
The Best of Both Worlds
Carol Cranford, program specialist for the Family Support Network of Southern Piedmont, says that children with special needs are just like everybody else when it comes to choosing friends. “Most of us connect best and feel most comfortable with people who have the similar interest as we do. We become friends with people we like and who like us back. I think it’s the same with children with special needs. It’s important for kids with special needs to have opportunities to make friends with kids special needs and kids who are typically developing.”
Maureen Rich Wallace has three children under the age of five, her oldest, Charlie, has Down syndrome. She values a balance of both worlds. “I absolutely want Charlie to have friends who are peers and friends who are neurotypical.” Wallace desires a diverse environment for all over her children including ethnicity, gender, culture, and more. “I think it’s important because as he gets older and understands that he has Down syndrome, I want him to have peers who can relate and support each other.”
Goodman does feel like it is helpful for her other son, Buddy, to have friends with Down syndrome. “It helps him to see that not all kids are like him, that some are like his brother, making it easier for him to accept the fact that when we have to do things differently for Joseph, there’s a reason, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Carol Cranford oversees workshops for siblings of children with special needs. “Siblings of kids with special needs often feel that they are alone. They feel neglected by their parents because their brother or sister requires so much attention. Siblings take on care-giving responsibilities for their brother or sister at an early age and are often more mature than their peers. They need an opportunity to share the ups and downs of having a brother or sister with special needs with peers who can relate.” She says that Sibshops gives siblings a chance to see that other families are just as wacky as their own and they can learn to see humor in their situation. “Connecting with other siblings of kids with special needs can be life changing, from embarrassment and anger to advocate and leader.”
Support in the Similarities
At the end of the day what we want for our children is to be valued and accepted. We want them to have friends and relationship that will support them. Different families will find this in different ways.
Jill Wagoner is the mother of a child with Down syndrome. She serves as an advocate, writer, speaker, fundraiser, and grant writer for organizations that support children with special needs. A former journalist and current marketer and public relations specialist, Jill has been published in many publications and blogs, including The Salisbury Post, Salisbury Life Magazine, Modern Parent, and Rowan Magazine.