Everybody needs friends

Everybody needs friends

SPECIAL BOND

Everybody needs friends

Social interactions and relationships play an important role in everyone’s life.  When one has no friends, life spans are significantly reduced. However, the social networks of friends and intimate relationships for children with disabilities are often smaller than those of children without disabilities.

Probably because most of us are not very comfortable with children or people who are different, we try to avoid them. Whether it is of the autistic boy next door, the girl with Down Syndrome or the kid in a wheelchair, the unease that we experience in their presence, stays with us even after the interaction, if any, is over. Why this discomfort? Do we feel sad for the child or is it our lack of ability to empathise with them? Unfortunately, the same feeling is transferred down to our children, thus barring any social contact with differently-abled children.

Sometimes, children with disabilities might have unique barriers that prevent them from developing and maintaining interactions. For instance, children with autism have difficulties in social and communication skills, an essential factor for interaction and making friends. Many children on the spectrum may not want to make friends, while others who do are at sea as to how to go about it. Similarly, a child who has physical difficulties or limitations may not be able to play outdoor games and hence, may feel left out. None of these barriers, though, are insurmountable, provided we are willing to make an effort. Because the fact remains that it’s not easy for children with special needs to find empathetic social interactions and meaningful friendships.

There is no specific hand-guide to help one interact with a child, irrespective of whether the kid has special needs or not. They are all different. Also, contrary to popular perception, one does not require special aptitude or training to interact with a differently-abled child. It’s good to remember that he or she is a child first and the special needs part comes later. Here are some pointers to help you get started and also, for parents and teachers to do their best:

Open your hearts

People tend to avoid differently-abled children, mainly because they do not know what to say and whether to say it or not. Even parents bringing up children with special needs sometimes fall flat on their face with certain parenting techniques that annoy or upset their child. The key is to stop being hesitant and start a conversation.

Be patient

Dealing with any child requires patience and tact. However, with special needs children you might require a little more than usual of both. Simply because you have a child with special needs does not always bring patience naturally, but as a parent, one needs to make a conscious effort and build it up. While raising children with special needs, it is important how they support the kids’ mental, emotional and physical growth, since parents are the first teachers in their life.

It is important to first get the child’s attention to create a rapport, depending on his or her special needs; it may be necessary to take the child’s hand, place a hand on the child’s shoulder or even touch each other’s face to make a proper introduction. Rapport building techniques will differ with each child. One needs to be innovative to catch the attention of the child.

Tantrum check

All children have temper tantrums, and if that tantrum happens at a public place, like a mall or restaurant, parents tend to feel resentment and embarrassment and sometimes anger too, because they feel their parenting skills are being judged and looked down upon. We know that a special child may or may not be able to do many things, but sometimes due to their disability, parents pamper the child and give in to their temper tantrums. This may cause behaviour difficulties and the child may become unmanageable. In the case of kids with special needs, those behavioural storms can be more confounding, more damaging, and more difficult to interpret.  This adds to stress, putting a strain on the parent-child relationship. There are many appropriate ways to handle the tantrum instead of giving in, such as distracting the child and diverting his or her mind towards an activity that the child enjoys.

Different, but normal

Being different is not a bad thing. When it comes to special needs children, it is essential that everyone should try interacting with them as normally as possible. A positive attitude is the single most important quality for anyone who works with differently-abled children. Many highly trained specialists are unable to interact with children because of their negative attitude and assumptions. But some people with no experience or training with special children are able to create a rapport instantaneously and are able to work with the child. A smiling face and humour go a long way in releasing stress and building a child’s confidence.

Never compel

Understanding the abilities and temperament of the child will help in creating a fruitful interaction without pushing the child to do something he or she may not like. When the topic of interaction is of interest to the child, you will notice how much they love to talk. Like with any relationship, it’s all about finding common ground. For smaller or non-verbal children, physical games are more fun as they feel emotionally connected to the other person while playing with them. Games like peek-a-boo, ball games, reading picture story books together, etc are great ways to initiate interaction.

Children always knows what they want and same is the case with children with special needs. It is a good idea to let them choose what they want to do in the “together time” instead of the adult — whether it’s the parent, teacher or friendly relative — always deciding. Letting the child choose will help him or her feel connected and listened to, and it’s a lovely way to boost their self-esteem. Also, you will be helping fill a very special need, one that everybody has — the need for good friends!

(The author is director, Sparsh for Children, New Delhi)

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