Yesterday my hubby sent me an e-mail with a link to this story about a 13-year-old Peterborough, Ont. boy with Asperger's. He invited 15 students to his birthday party and not one RSVP'd.
"I read this and started crying," he wrote, thinking about our son. We had a similar situation a few years ago when our son invited two "friends" from school to a celebration that involved going to see The Hunger Games and they didn't show. I remember sitting at our dining room table cutting cake with my other kids when my son asked "where" his friends were and "why" they weren't there. "Something must have come up," I said. We went as a family to the movie.
People who don't have kids with significant disabilities don't have a clue what this is like. It's completely outside their realm of experience. I don't think I would have believed the degree of isolation that can happen, especially in high school and early adulthood, to youth with more significant disabilities, or those that make social relationships challenging.
In 2012, Dr. Anne Snowdon's study of 166 families in three Canadian cities found that more than half of children with physical and developmental disabilities have no friends or only one friend. Only 1 per cent spend an hour a day with a friend. Is that possible? Growing up I spent hours with friends everyday after school.
Last year Sarah Keenan, life skills coach at Holland Bloorview, spoke about how research shows friendship is associated with life satisfaction and good mental health in the general population. On the other hand, loneliness negatively impacts the immune system and heart health.
Children with disabilities tend to have fewer friends and smaller social networks than their peers, Sarah said, after reviewing 56 studies. She 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.
On the weekend people were touched by the outpouring of social media support for the Peterborough student. After his mother posted about his friends giving him the cold shoulder, tweets poured in from sports teams, actors, singers and politicians, all sending him birthday greetings. And strangers and media came to his party at a bowling alley that night.
That's great, and I'm sure it was a huge boost to this boy and his family. But how will this translate into changes in the boy's daily life? What about the 15 students he wanted to come to his party, who didn't even respond? How will their ideas or behaviour change? This was a feel-good one-off—one tweet sent, one event attended. Inclusion for youth with disabilities is so much more complicated than that.
This morning I heard from a parent in Vancouver who sent me a link to a video about her son, with autism, and Club G—an elementary school's efforts to ensure he was included. Make sure you watch it. I was crying tears of joy by the end. This is the thinking behind Club G.
But then I thought about it and my pessimism returned. This is elementary school. Our own experience has been that authentic friendship is possible during those early years, when kids are receptive and a school makes disability awareness and inclusion a priority.
It's in the high school years that things break down—when the focus becomes much more academic, schools are less invested in character development, education for students with disabilities often becomes segregated, and teens themselves cringe to be seen as different.
According to a U.S. National Institutes Health Funded Study led by Holland Bloorview researcher Gillian King, the teen years are particularly difficult for youth with disabilities. While peers become involved in a growing array of activities that widens their social network, teens with disabilities tend to stick with the same activities, often with family members.
This is a deep, difficult cultural problem, not one that can be solved on social media.