By Louise Kinross
Life skills staff at Holland Bloorview presented their early findings from a review of 56 studies on friendship for youth with disabilities at a hospital Crosstalk last week. The event brought together staff, youth and a parent speaker.
Sarah Keenan, life skills coach, noted that research has shown that friendship is associated with life satisfaction and good mental health in the general population, while loneliness has negative impacts on our immune system and heart health.
Yet children with disabilities tend to have fewer friends and smaller social networks than their peers. Sarah referenced an American study of 11,000 teens that found that “over 50 per cent of students with autism had no contact with friends outside school and were never invited to spend time with friends.”
Studies find that typical youth are more open to having a friend who has a physical disability than one with an intellectual disability, she said. However, interactions with youth with disabilities in general are often superficial on the part of typical youth.
There is no one definition of friendship and clinicians and researchers want to know more about how youth with disabilities define a good friend, Sarah said.Research shows that friendships of youth with disabilities have some unique characteristics.
For example, while most teens move away from their family in pursuing a growing social life, youth with disabilities continue to need parent support to keep friendships going. Friendships of people with disabilities, particularly those with autism, tend to be less intimate than their peers. And youth with disabilities have less social contexts in which to develop friends because issues with transportation, accessibility and safety make it harder for them to get together outside school.
Most studies about friendships for youth with disabilities focus on the school environment and few look at connections in the community, Sarah said.Holland Bloorview recently ran a 14-week friendship development program called PEERS.
The program, originally designed for youth with autism, was adapted for teens with physical disability and called Teen Talk. Teens and parents participate in separate 90-minute weekly sessions.
A key lesson learned “is that it’s not enough to focus on teaching skills, we need to give youth opportunities to practise and generalize these skills in school and in the community,” Sarah said. In addition, “parents are important partners in helping their children develop skills and make and maintain friends.”
A parent said the program broke down complex skills for her daughter and gave her the chance to practise them. She noted that friendships for youth today are less face to face and more online.
Parents in the program found school inclusion to be too challenging for many youth, the parent speaker said, and that their children had had greater success making friends in separate programs for kids with similar abilities. “It takes time to get to know our kids and how many typical individuals take the time to get to know the person underneath?” she asked.
The parent said that it’s during the teen and young adult years that youth most need support in creating social networks. “Don’t cut off services at age 18,” she said. “And don’t leave it up to parents,” who already have their hands full addressing a multitude of needs in their child.
“A great way that I made friends was by getting involved in clubs and places in the community and volunteering,” said Farrah Sattaur, a young adult who spoke.
“I think parents should make it a point to connect with their child's teacher because parents know their child best. They should also focus on their child’s abilities, rather than disabilities, and try to figure out their child’s interests. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out a child’s interests. Look for clues, like if your child is always happy around your dog and looking for the dog.
“Teachers should connect with parents, EAs and special-ed teachers to make their programs and activities more accessible. For children and youth who find it a challenge to make friends, just be yourself and believe you can do it.”