How to help a child bond with special needs classmates
BY JENNIFER TSUEI
“My child has a special needs classmate. What
should I do next? How can I help make this a positive
experience for everyone?” Chances are, if you love asking
about your child’s social scene at school, you will
come across these questions. According to the NYC Department
of Education, New York City has more than a
million students in its public school system, and about
21% of these students have been identified as having at
least one type of disability.
Whether in public school or private school, it is
likely that a child will have special needs classmates
during their school years. How can you help your child
bond with this classmate? Gena Mann, co-founder of
Wolf + Friends, offers us insight into this question. She
has two sons, ages 19 and 17, with autism as well as two
younger neurotypical daughters.
Inclusion in the mainstream classroom
When children are in the younger grades, it is often
the intention of both the school and parents to keep a
special needs child included in mainstream classrooms.
Children with mild impairments can learn to
connect with typical children, and typical children can
learn about living in a world where not everybody is exactly
That said, Mann notes that with her older child with
more severe impairments, “Once I gave up on that idea
for him, we had a lot more success.” Parents of younger
special needs children are discovering their own school
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journeys, and modeling one’s own support, compassion
and kindness toward other families wherever they may
be along this journey will help your child reflect your
own care and positive values within a school community
. Mann also notes that it was almost harder to help
her second son to form bonds with peers when he was
younger since he is autistic, but presents as typical
to the untrained eye. “The social thing was so much
harder because you’re explaining to people over and
over again, ‘This is why he acts that way.’” She adds: “A
patient peer – that’s a start!” Thus, helping your child
develop patience and acceptance of their peers no matter
how they may act or behave would be the first step
in bonding with a special needs child.
The elephant in the room
Rather than pretending that everyone is the same,
Mann is a proponent of “addressing the elephant in the
room.” For her older son, when he was in the younger
grades, either she or a school psychologist would do a
mini-lesson in class about autism, explaining what
that means specifically for her son and how classmates
could find ways to connect with him. Mann would tell
the class, “Jasper has autism. Here’s what that means.”
She would offer an overview appropriate to the class’s
age range: “These are the ways that he might behave
that may be different or confusing to you. These are the
things that are hard for him. These are the things he is
The adult can suggest interests and strengths that
peers could engage with, for example, playing along
on the monkey bars or sitting nearby and drawing.
Mann believes that “addressing the differences and
normalizing them, and also pointing out the similarities
helps connect the kids.” Mann says that this gave
the classmates a set of concrete ways that they could
approach her son and begin to socially engage with
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KIDS & EDUCATION
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