Developing and maintaining meaningful relationships can be difficult for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. We see it every day at playgrounds, schools, and gatherings. We’re reminded of it everywhere we go. Recently a well-intentioned family member told me I should look out for my son, who just started kindergarten and has Down syndrome, because “kids like him” are often lonely and don’t have friends. Ouch.

The reasons why enduring friendships can be fleeting vary from person to person, of course. Those of us affected by disability understand “the whys” all too well. So let’s look at the HOW. How do we cultivate a better buddy system in our schools? How do we help children of all abilities build lasting friendships?


All human beings are more alike than different. We all have struggles. We all have strengths and weaknesses. We all love. We all hurt.

“As with any type of buddy relationship, it is the shared common ground that forms the foundation of a relationship,” says Janet Reese, Parent Support Specialist for Alexandria City Public Schools and mother to three children; two of them have IEPs, one has a 504 plan. “So, if both kids like to go to the pool, that can be a natural way to start building a relationship.”


In early intervention, therapists drill parents on how to model good behavior so their child with a disability will learn how to behave. This applies to typically developing children and other adults as well. Someone is always watching us. So the way we talk about disability matters at all times.

When my younger, typically developing son started school as a “typical peer” in our school district’s reverse inclusion preschool program, I found myself thinking perhaps I should try to talk to him about his role. Then I came to my senses and realized how ridiculous that would be. These are his peers. These are his equals. He is just another classmate. We as parents have modeled good behavior. We treat him and his siblings as equals. This is what he will do in school. And he has.

Inclusion is still relatively new and rare. Even people close to it, forget what it is in its purest form. It’s just being … whether in a classroom, a cafeteria, a playground, a music class, a play, a restaurant, wherever … with people of ALL abilities. Unfortunately, it still feels different for some of us to have someone next to us who may be in a wheelchair or who can’t speak clearly or who may need assistance. These differences are normal and natural. What’s not normal and natural is that we’ve been segregated for so long. Through being ourselves and demonstrating comfort, ease, and companionship – we can help put people new to disability at ease. Often times the best way to do that is to just show them without saying a word.


While it is refreshingly wonderful to see so many children with disabilities embraced by peers and teachers these days – overdoing it can feel patronizing. It is not a badge of honor to have a child with a disability is in your class. You are not doing him or her any favors. He or she deserves to be there. It is important to remember you are indeed peers. Putting a child with an intellectual or developmental disability on a pedestal or on display as if he or she is a mascot is not okay.


“My child is not your community service project, not for teachers or for you and your children,” says Kimberly Fondren, Government Attorney and mother of a child with a learning difference. “For children – if you want to be his friend, be his friend. For parents – don’t use friendship with him as evidence of your child’s compassion, generosity, or social service. It is quite possible that my son finds something about your child difficult as well. Nobody is going to give him a merit badge for putting up with them in the name of friendship.”


Some children and adults need a bit more time to process what you’re saying and form a response. Give your friend a chance to absorb what you’re saying and wait for the reply.

The same goes for activities. If you’re going for a walk, a child with a disability might need a bit more time to get places. Be sure to build that into your excursion. If you’re playing a game, allow him or her time to think about their next move. If you’re playing a sport, remember he or she might not be as coordinated, but they are just as determined.


Children with disabilities already have teachers and parents and therapists and coaches and so many others telling them what to do and when, where, and how to do it. When it comes to a buddy, they just need a friend.

Friends hang out. Friends listen to music together. Friends go to restaurants. Friends play and goof around.

Friends also look out for each other. They have each other’s backs. They tell you if you have something in your teeth. They comfort you when you’re hurting. These are all things you can do as a friend without taking on a paternal or teaching or mentor role. Everyone needs a friend like that. And friendship is a two way street. With true friends we get back what we put in. Sometimes you have to be patient.


Oftentimes people will talk down to someone with an intellectual or developmental disability as if they are far younger than they are. It can be confusing because some conditions cause a child to be small for his or her age. Try to remind yourself how old your friend is. Remember how you felt when you were that age. Treat them appropriately.

Parents of children with developmental delays often joke about how unfair it is that puberty comes right on time. This is so very true. Teens with disabilities are having those same hormone surges as their peers. Their bodies are changing. They have crushes on the cute boys or girls in their class. They want to drive a car and go to college and think they know more then their parents. We need to recognize and respect this.


Disability is a natural, normal part of life. Unfortunately, it still makes a lot of people uncomfortable.

“Successful relationships will be built on the idea of treating everyone with kindness and respect, and on the acceptance of the person as he or she is,” Reese says. “People need to be loved and respected for who they are and just as they are.  Love and respect should not be contingent on ‘improving’: people with disabilities are not projects that need to be “fixed”. Successful relationships are also built on the recognition of the gifts that each person has, rather than a focus on the person’s disability.”


The international nonprofit group Best Buddies has a lofty and wonderful goal – that it will render itself useless by the next decade. It’s mission: “Best Buddies envisions a world where people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are so successfully integrated into our schools, our workplaces, and our general communities that our current efforts and services will be unnecessary.”

Samanatha Civitate is the Program Supervisor for the Best Buddies Friendship and Ambassador Program in the Best Buddies Capitol Region. She says that during training, peer buddies immediately recognize that they are no different from their fellow students with disabilities. “The biggest thing we teach is inclusion on every level. Whatever you do with your best friend you would do with your buddy. We want these friendships to be equal so both parties will learn and grow together” says Civitate.

The wishes, hopes, and dreams of all human beings are essentially the same. We all worry about fitting in, going to prom, going to college, getting our license. We all dream about living on our own, traveling the world, and finding someone special to share in our journey.


2 thoughts

  1. I feel that it is discriminating. Why us it only for Down Syndrome and not all disabled? My son has Autism and his girlfriend is Down Syndrome and he is very upset that he cannot be in the Buddy program like her.

    1. Hello Sue. The program mentioned in this article is for EVERYONE with intellectual and developmental disabilities. As the writer, I did reference my son who has Down syndrome. That was just one example. Best Buddies is an inclusive program. Others interviewed in the article are speaking about a wide range of disabilities.

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