Being a friend to someone with special needs


By Lisa Ackerman

Everybody needs a friend. Children with special needs such as autism, learning delays, and other disabilities can struggle finding friends who are patient, friendly and open minded.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 1 in every 6 school-aged children has a neurological condition. 1 in every 88 or 1 in every 50 have autism (1,2.) If you don’t know someone with autism or other neurological condition you soon will.  That is why this article is so important to help guide typical children how to be friends with someone with special needs.

Parents can help their typical children better understand and include children with special needs by letting them know that not everyone acts, learns, communicates and plays the same way they do. It is also important to let your children know that everyone needs a friend and the most significant thing they can do is to try!

Here are some tips on how you can set the stage for your child to develop new friendships with special needs children:

  • Begin by teaching your child about disabilities:  the more the child understands, the easier it is to become friends and accept individuals with differences. Some great books that share a great message include:
    • I Love my Brother! A preschoolers view of living with a brother who has autism:  By Connor Sullivan
    • My Brother Charlie – by Holly Robinson Peete & Ryan Elizabeth Peete
    • A is for Autism F is for Friend – by Joanna Velasco
    • Andy and his Yellow Frisbee – by Mary Thompson
    • Ian’s Walk – A story about autism – By Laurie Lears
    • What’s Wrong with Timmy? – By Maria Shriver

TACA’s website has some tips, too (3.)

  • Take time to answer your child’s questions: respectfully listen to and answer your child’s question about themselves and others. Do not ignore questions, change the subject, or sidestep or admonish the child for asking questions. These responses suggest that what a child is asking is bad. Answer all questions in a direct, matter-of-fact manner. Listen carefully to what your children want to know and what they are feeling. (And if you don’t know the answer, ask! TACA can help!)
  • Work on creating a home environment that supports diversity: Make it a firm rule that a person’s diagnosis is never an acceptable reason for teasing or rejection. Immediately step in if you hear or see your child engage in such activities.
  • Provide opportunities to interact:  parents can actively seek out opportunities for their children to interact with children that have disabilities. Parents can arrange opportunities as school, daycare, or local parks for children to play together and interact.  Ask your school or play group for times and schedules available to engage.

Here are steps to friendship once the opportunity is available:

  • Begin by saying HI!
    Encourage your child not to be afraid to say hello and smile. This is a great way to let someone know that you care and help them feel welcomed.
  • Try, try and TRY again:
    Sometimes it may take a few attempts to make a connection with a new friend because they may be able to hear you, or they may be intently focused on another activity. Try again if they miss the first time!
  • Invite your friend over:
    Often special needs children get overlooked for friendship activities that most children enjoy from parties to playdates. Invite friends over for play or that upcoming party. Think of ways to include all friends in upcoming special activities. Ask the parents what their child enjoys and then do your best to incorporate activities that your new friends like.
  • Don’t forget the golden rule:  treat a person with a disability they way you would like to be treated and you’ll have a friend for life.

Opening your heart to new friends can make a huge difference for you and your community. It will teach your children lifelong lessons that many in this world have yet to learn. The population of special needs children is growing and the better we understand how to interact, the more amazing friendships can be.





This article originally appeared on PARENTING September 2006. Updates are included in this article.

3 thoughts on “Being a friend to someone with special needs

Add yours

  1. Thank you for your thoughts. My son has Autism and my fear is that kids will be mean to him because they don’t understand why he is the way he is. It is so important to teach our children to be understanding and considerate to others. Thank you.

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