Think about what you get out of the relationships you have outside of your family—with friends, neighbors, coworkers and others in your community. Now think about your child. How might friendships and social interactions add to their life?
It’s not always easy for children with disabilities or special health care needs to make friends or build social skills. It takes work. And it can make such a difference in their lives to be able to connect with other children and people outside the family.
This page has ideas on how to support your child in making friends. If your child is a teenager or young adult, also see our Friendships After High School page for ideas to support older children and young adults.
Not all friendships look the same. A friend can be older or younger than your child, with or without disabilities. When your child spends time with someone else, it might not involve a lot of talking or communication. Friends usually have some of the same interests and enjoy being together. Sometimes, you can’t explain why your child and another person just “click”—but they do.
Children have different abilities and interests in being social. You can’t make friends for your child, but you can help your child along the way. You can give them chances to be social, taking it one step at a time. And you might be able to help children who don’t have the same diagnosis as your child understand your child better.
If your child is in school, most of their social interactions will happen there. School gives children with disabilities and special health care needs chances to meet and spend a lot of time with other children with adult supervision and support.
Here are some ideas from other parents on helping your child make connections at school:
Here are some ideas from other parents about friendships and connections out in the community:
See our Friendships After High School page for more ideas for older and adult children.
While there is something magical about in-person connections, your child might also like connecting with peers online. This can be helpful when they can’t see friends in person because of distance, schedules or special health care needs.
Here are a few reminders from other parents about online interactions:
As your child connects with people, you can help them build and keep friendships. This might be by staying in touch with other parents or talking to your child about social skills. It might be driving your child to activities or to a friend’s house. Or maybe you ask your child about friends, remind them to stay in touch or help them figure out what to say to their friend. You can let your child decide what activities they like and want to do, or encourage them to try new things.
Support your child if another child is not being kind or respectful. If there is a disagreement, you might be able to help your child solve the problem. Or your child might just need a break from that other child.
To make and keep friendships and other relationships, your child might need to build up their social skills. Social skills help a child communicate and work together with others. They include the social norms or “rules” that people use to get along.
Here are some examples of social skills:
Using social stories might be one way to teach your child about social skills and help them get ready to see a friend. A social story has words and maybe pictures to show your child the steps in an event or experience. They are often used for children with autism. Carol Gray Social Stories , the Head Start Center for Inclusion, and the “And Next Comes L” blog are three websites with free social stories to download or learn how to build your own.
Our “What Are Social Skills?” blog article explains more.
In some places, there are groups, classes and programs that can help children with disabilities build social skills. In these groups, children can practice interactions, communication and conversation, if they are able.
These might happen at school, maybe in a special education program. They might also happen in the community. They might be run by a counselor, social worker, speech therapist, recreational therapist or occupational therapist. Learn more about these different professionals on our page on therapy options.
There might be groups for children with different diagnoses, such as autism or other developmental disabilities. Or groups for children of different ages.
To find out if there is a group in your area that might help your child, you can:
It’s a good idea to ask any therapist, professional or support person working with your child about ways to support friendships and connections. You can also visit our Groups, Services and Events page to find out about different groups in your area.
“My son’s first playdate was at age 16. It’s never too late to keep trying! You never know when your child will find a friend that clicks.”
“I’d tell other parents to try Special Olympics and Miracle League. These organizations have been really valuable to my daughter for making friends, team skills and are real confidence builders.”
“It’s important to start your child in making friends as early as possible. It’s hard. And often it’s awkward, embarrassing work, but it’s worth it if your child can learn to be a friend and then want friends.”