Down Syndrome Awareness Day#15: Down syndrome and friendships.
Peer relations are a critical aspect of any child’s life.
Friends play a significant role in mental and physical health; however, developing friendships remains a problem for many with Down syndrome and other developmental disabilities. Many parents report that peer friendships do not extend beyond school hours.
Social inclusion is a critical issue for every student with a disability, regardless of whether the student is educated entirely in special education classes or is fully or partially included in general education classes. Hopefully, students educated in all of these scenerios will eventually live and work in the community, where they need to be able to interact with people of all ability levels.
In order for individuals with developmental disabilities to live independent and full lives, friends in the community are critical. The possibility of community friendships has been a major impetus for the full inclusion of individuals with severe disabilities in local public schools. However, according to Myra Madnick, the former Executive Director of the National Down Syndrome Society in New York, “Despite all of the gains individuals with Down syndrome have made, loneliness is a major problem”. Although students who are included have made great strides in language, behaviour, social development and academics this is not true for social inclusion
Peter’s Story –
Peter often sees adults as friends because of the familiarity and ease with which they interact with him. Tack on the amount of time he spent around adults due to all his hospital stays, medical visits, and therapies; and it is obvious why Peter is most comfortable around them.
Despite the challenges to develop healthy relationships, Peter goes out every day in “friend mode”. No one is a stranger, and everyone deserves a big smile. And in some cases, an extra big hug. He gets his extroverted ‘know-no-stranger’ personality from John. And, because Peter is friendly with just about everyone, he often misses the social cue that they aren’t really friends with him. He has not grasped that friendly does not equal friend.
Making true friends with other children has been harder for Peter both in and out of school. He struggles with communication and has little interest in most games/toys that are hits with kids his age. Some parents are uncomfortable with Peter, leading them to create a distance between Peter and their children. Often kids are uncomfortable with Peter’s differences, and unless guided by a parent/adult in accepting the differences, will generally create a distance too.
On the other end of the spectrum are kids that mock Peter’s differences, this happens most often outside of school where there is less supervision. While it breaks my heart, Peter doesn’t recognize that he is being humiliated and will continue to attempt to interact with those kids. Most often, his peers see Peter as much younger, almost baby like, and attempt to parent him. Peter will generally go along with this, as it involves interaction which he cherishes dearly.
Developing healthy relationships is a team effort, and one that requires work every day.
At school Peter has girl friends who are the nurturers, always wanting to be sure he is ok. He has the boy friends who have his back make sure he is in the right place at the right time, and staying out of trouble. He has those adult friends who just really love him, and care for his overall well being. His best buddy is a boy, with intellectual disability, who thinks Peter ROCKS. He accepts Peter for who he is, and sees him as an equal. This is Peter’s true best friend.
I think there is not one person at Peter’s school who does not know him. The most common phrase I hear in the halls of his school are “Hey, Peter!” Walking the hallways, learning in class, or playing at recess, Peter is happy at school because he feels accepted.
Acceptance is that first step in forming healthy and respectful friendships.