My daughter, Casey, was nonverbal, yet everywhere she went she made friends. I am often asked how we did that.
First, let me tell you it took a little trial and error and it was something that we developed over the years. It can be done though, and a lot of it is up to you as the parent.
The first few times we went out with Casey, it was hard. We had so much equipment. Both the equipment and Casey made a lot of noise, and as soon as we entered a room, all eyes were on us.
Knowing how to handle stares is tricky. It’s easy to feel defensive and assume people are staring for all the wrong reasons. That’s the first trick we learned: Take that idea out of your head. Put yourself back to the time before you were a parent, or before you had any experience with medical equipment and the disability community. If you were sitting in a room and someone came in with a child who looked a little different and was using a loud piece of equipment that you had never seen before, chances are you looked. Not because you were judging them, or out of malice; you looked simply out of curiosity. Most of the people you encounter mean no harm, and will do their best not to stare. But they are curious. Always keep that in mind.
Depending on how much time you have or the type of day you are having, you can do a lot with these encounters. Smile, say hello, or introduce yourself and/or your child. If you show them kindness, chances are they will return the same kindness. They may have questions, and it’s up to you how much you share.
Once the ice has been broken, help them to see the similarities, not the differences, between your child and theirs. You can guess the age of their child and let them know it’s close to your child’s age. Maybe they are wearing your child’s favorite color or a character from your child’s favorite show. Whatever similarities you can find, use those. Something like “I see you have Thomas the Train on your shirt. Is that one of your favorites? My Joey really likes Thomas, too.”
Your approachability and your mood will set the tone.
If you welcome the parents or other children with a warm smile or friendly exchange, chances are they will be glad that you did. There are a few exceptions, and some people are just not nice. Most people are, though, and most people love being able to learn more about other kids in the community.
A great place to make new friends is any place you frequent—therapy centers, your favorite restaurant, the neighborhood park, etc. You may be surprised how quickly some of these new friends become big parts of your life.
Many of the people you encounter want to reach out, but they don’t always know how. Often, they are worried about saying the wrong thing or offending you. This article can help your friends and family better know how to reach out to other children with special health care needs.
More information is available in the Family Support section on this site.