In the Philippines, an estimate of one in every 800 babies born daily is eventually diagnosed with Down Syndrome. Most of us have encountered individuals or have relatives with this congenital disorder. With increasing awareness, acceptance, and mainstream inclusion of children with special needs, we, as parents and as a community, have to learn to address their physical and emotional needs. Read on to get some tips that might help these children make friends and cultivate relationships.
How to encourage (and keep) children with Down socially active
In any given task, the first step is the hardest to take. It is important to establish a good support system and have a ‘back up’ when things get hard. For children with special needs, we have to start early and maintain that momentum throughout.
One of the pillars of self-confidence and social competence is being able to communicate effectively. Remember that language (verbal and non-verbal) is important. Parents are encouraged to strengthen their child’s expressive language skills at home, even before school age. This can be combined with sign language (as well as other visual cues), reading, and writing. However, parents should be careful not to be condescending. Children with Down syndrome (DNS) are very receptive, so sensitivity and emotional warmth are important.
When planning for activities, eventual school entry, and participation, the following can be helpful:
- Know their limitations and inform concerned individuals (teachers, tutors, coaches). Kids with DNS may have other problems such as heart defects, weak leg muscles, etc. Sit down and talk things through with your doctor/s. Being familiar with their limitations will guide you into which activities they can actively participate (and maybe excel in) without encountering potential difficulties.
- Know which activities interest them. This increases individual involvement. When a child is interested in what they are doing, it makes the activity less of a chore and more of a fun game.
- Be involved in your child’s activities (without hovering too much). This will help you plan early intervention programs in areas that the child has difficulties in. And eventually help him/her in the long run, most especially if there are plans for inclusion in mainstream schools.
- Take cues from your child. Adults sometimes have off days – you wake up feeling ‘meh’ and don’t want to do much. Well, children get that too. If your child is not in the mood to interact with other children, do not force him/her. This way, you validate and show respect to his/her feelings and individuality. And most importantly, you avoid potentially embarrassing tantrums.
- Create social opportunities. Your child’s social calendar mostly depends on you. This is why it is a good idea to start building relationships while your child is young. Reach out to other parents. Maybe you can set a play date with kumareng Sally’s children. You can encourage a shy child to socialize with others by providing materials to play with and demonstrating how to do it while slowly withdrawing once their interest is piqued. If they do get into ‘fights’, teach them how to resolve it (and avoid getting personally involved).
Above all, the role of the family cannot be overemphasized. We are not just talking about mom and dad. This involves ate, kuya, other siblings, cousins, the whole package. Children emulate what they see. Pro-social behaviors should be taught to all children, with or without special needs. Helping others and showing respect to rules and laws are traits that are picked up and imbibed initially at home. Start teaching these early on.
What happens when they start school?
A lot of what happens depends on the kind of school (special vs. mainstream) and the support the teacher and classmates show a special child. If you plan to enroll your child in a mainstream school, always keep the teachers informed of your child’s limitations and capabilities. Classmates should also be informed because acceptance starts from understanding. When difficulties arise, such as when the child is isolated, plans for inclusion should be discussed with the teachers, other parents, and classmates. If the child is bullied, teachers should have plans on how to handle the situation (which should ideally have been discussed with the parent beforehand).
What happens when they become teenagers?
Teenage years are hard to navigate and children with special needs are not exempted. Since children with Down have a good understanding of their environment and situation, they are prone to be more affected by what other people say or do. Fitting in, wanting to be ‘the same’, and being accepted in a group becomes more important. And they are not exempted from the usual teenage ‘angst’. As parents, we can help them by being mindful not just of their needs but also of their interests.
- Appearances are important for teenagers. Clothing, haircut, makeup, and accessories are suddenly issues that matter. Involve them in shopping for clothes and in making appropriate decisions.
- School activities and clubs are good venues for finding people with common interests. Again, make sure that the coaches and teachers are aware of your child’s limitations and medical conditions (if any).
- Parties, parties and more parties! It’s hard to get away from parties, celebrations, and eating out with friends. Plan these activities ahead and talk it over with your child. Sometimes, you have to limit and choose which parties they can attend. However, remember to work out a compromise and explain to them why they can’t attend each and every party they get invited to.
- Have a buddy system. By this time, your child should have a trusted group of friends. Make sure to inform them of your child’s limitations. Orient your child and his/her friends on who and when to call if the need arises. You can also talk with their parents so that they know what to expect during sleepovers, etc.
- Supervise their use of social media. Just like every other teen, your child may express interest in Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. And just like every other parent, advise and supervise them when using social media. It is a good venue for reaching out to other individuals with similar needs but it also easily isolates a person from reality and opens the door for ‘trolls’ and ‘haters’.
Also remember to be open to possibilities and teach your child to be independent. Establishments are slowly warming up to the idea of employing adults with special needs. Hence, there is a possibility that your child might choose to live independently (and even pursue romantic relationships) in the future. Be prepared, keep an open mind, and help him/her prepare for that scenario.
Back to the basics
No matter what our status or condition in life are, how we treat others always reflects our character. Please, thank you, and sorry are words that carry a lot of weight but are often forgotten. Special or not, always teach your child to be compassionate, polite, and respectful. It is easy to gravitate and like those people who show these traits.