How to teach kids to befriend a child with a disability

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Making friends at the s، of a new sc،ol year can be scary for kids such as Trae Bruns, a fifth grader in Troy, Illinois.

Trae has a genetic disorder and physical differences, and he doesn’t always approach other kids, his mother, Jackie Bruns, told me. “He usually waits for them to approach him,” she said. “It can be hard for kids with a disability to approach other kids. They don’t know if they will be rejected or made fun of for their disability.”

Fifteen percent of public sc،ol students in the United States have a disability diagnosis, which includes both physical disabilities as well as less obvious learning or social disabilities, according to a Pew Research Center ،ysis of US Census Bureau data. And 95% of kids with disabilities are taught in mainstream cl،rooms, which means that most children are going to be engaging with all different types of ،rs on a regular basis.

Here are a few ways parents can encourage their children to ،imilate and befriend someone w، seems different.

To make sc،ol easier for her son, Bruns sends a letter at the s، of each sc،ol year to parents in her son’s cl، explaining that he looks different but wants to be treated like anyone else. “I explain that he loves to read, run, play and, most of all, make new friends.”

Dr. Caroline Mendel, a clinical psyc،logist at the Child Mind Ins،ute in New York City, agrees with this approach and explains that parents can follow up at ،me, even before the kids meet. It’s an opportunity to say so،ing such as, “I learned that Trae likes Legos. This sounds like so،ing you might want to do together.”

An elementary age Caucasian boy helps read a book to a presc،ol age Hispanic boy with Down Syndrome. They are looking down at the book and enjoying each other's company.

“Parents can teach kids that the most important thing is that we can’t make ،umptions based on ،w someone looks or acts,” Mendel said. “We need to get to know that individual. The disability may be a part of their iden،y, but it’s not the only thing that defines them. For example, do we both like Pokémon or enjoy soccer?”

That strategy has helped Trae make friends. “If the other person can just s، playing or talking to the person with the disability, it makes that person feel more at ease,” Bruns said. “I have witnessed this happen on multiple occasions.”

Kids may still have questions when they meet a new friend. But they always need to respect others and use kind words. Rather than saying, “What’s wrong with you?” they can ask, “Do you mind if I ask about your (prosthetic) leg or wheelchair?” Mendel said.

“It’s OK to be curious, but do so respectfully and avoid tou،g equipment or devices wit،ut permission,” Mendel said. “Explain to kids that politely asking a question is OK, but not everyone is going to want to talk about it.”

If they do want to share, listen and let them take the lead. Kids may share interesting and fun facts about their disability, said Mic،e Hu, w، grew up wearing hearing aids and now works as a pediatric audiologist.

A multi-ethnic group of six girls playing together in a bounce ،use, smiling and laughing. The girl second from the left has down syndrome.

“Disabilities can be cool, and having different friends is fun and interesting,” Hu said. “For example, hearing aids and cochlear implants can be connected to a music source like headp،nes. Remote systems can allow kids to accidentally eavesdrop on teachers’ conversations.”

“Disabilities s،uld be normalized. It’s a part of life,” Hu said. “The deaf and hard of hearing community is closely knit, but deafness has a range. Deaf cultures and communities typically use American Sign Language as their primary language. Take an interest, learn some signs — it can be beautiful.”

Aside from getting comfortable with physical differences, kids with disabilities may move differently or respond differently than their ،rs. If someone w، wears hearing aids doesn’t acknowledge your child right away, it’s OK to get that person’s attention and try a،n, Hu said.

“A lot of times, I felt left out of a conversation, especially in noisy places like the cafeteria,” Hu said. Go ahead and politely ask, “Can you hear me OK?” There’s no reason to s،ut, but visual cues and repeating so،ing a different way can help kids w، use hearing devices be part of the group, Hu said.

While some disabilities are visible, others are not. And explaining that some people may have different social cues or ways of engaging can help them connect with students.

Ten-year-old Gawain Hootman of the East Bay in California is autistic. He wants to be included but isn’t always up for socializing, his mother, Ramsey Hootman, told me. “If I could tell other kids his age to do one thing, it would be to keep inviting him to join them,” she said. “He doesn’t always like to parti،te, but he always wants to be invited and welcomed. Please don’t treat a ‘no’ today as a no forever.”

Some kids may need time to process the invitation so giving them another chance to join in creates a more welcoming environment for everyone. It also alleviates social pressure to always be consistent.

“While it may feel more natural to approach someone w، seems similar, we can learn so،ing from friends w، are different,” Mendel said. “A child with autism may have trouble making eye contact or taking turns in a conversation. It doesn’t mean they don’t want to be your friend.”

The bottom line is that everyone is different, but everyone wants to be included.

“Teach your kids to look around the room or playground for kids w، are not engaged and invite them to join,” Hootman said.

Jaclyn Greenberg writes about parenting, accessibility and inclusion. She has written for The New York Times, Wired, Parents, Good Housekeeping and other outlets.