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6 Ways to Help Youth With Disabilities Increase Reciprocity in Friendships

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Teen girl A befriends teen girl B. She asks her for her phone number so they can text. Teen girl B is flattered and follows up with three texts over the next three weeks. None are answered. Girl B forgets about girl A, after her mom steps in to explain that girl A must not have time to be friends.

I am that mom, and girl B was my daughter. She has Down syndrome and a very pure heart. Girl A did not have a disability. My daughter doesn’t think about games, manipulation or simple thoughtlessness. It was sad and hard for me to explain reciprocity, but I did. And it was not the last time we have had that discussion.

Reciprocity in friendship is a fine line for anyone to gauge and manage. But for youth with intellectual disabilities, this can be especially tricky.  There are countless stories of people with intellectual disabilities being verbally bullied by someone they thought was a close friend, and still wanting to be friends with this person.

There are countless stories of people with intellectual disabilities having romantic feelings for someone and not being able to judge if the recipient feels the same way. I recently watched a webinar about dating for people with Down syndrome, and one of the main points was making clear that youth need to see if the other party has the same feelings.

As the concerned mom of a young adult with Down syndrome, I have been learning from, studying, and befriending successful young adults with intellectual and significant disabilities for a long time. Friendship itself has fascinated me, so much that I have a podcast episode dedicated to that subject.

One of the major points in the friendships I have interviewed in depth has been reciprocity, right away. Both parties are good with communication. Both parties want to get together. And both parties care for the other in various ways.

Why is reciprocity so tricky for youth with intellectual disabilities? For one, they have to find out why the other party may not be responding. And if that other party has an intellectual disability as well, there are situations to consider.

Sometimes it could be a case of the other person’s communication skills. Some people with ID have a hard time reading and writing, which makes texting harder. Speech may not be clear, or the person may not use typical speech, so methods besides phone calls may be preferred.

In some cases they may be just learning how to use a phone, iPad, etc. Until their skills are fine-tuned, what is actually a learning curve may seem like ignoring communication.

The other party may be using assistive technology, which again could have a learning curve, or favor one medium over another.

And last but not least, social norms need to be literally learned by many with intellectual disabilities. I know many young adults with ID who are “famous.” Their parents often tell me that social norms had to be taught. Just because their child has a great personality and is outgoing does not mean they know how to ask someone to dance, properly thank them, and then walk them off the dance floor when they are done. That is just one tiny example. Social norms are an integral part of relationships.

People with intellectual disabilities often have expressive language delays, which affect communicating needs and wants that many of us take for granted.

This is where families and peers can step in and help.

Yassy video chatting with her friend Sarah.

1) Make sure your young adult knows how to use their phone, iPad, computer, communication device, etc. Make sure they know their phone numbers, as well as family member’s numbers when possible.

2) If your youth needs assistive technology, please make sure they have it. If this means reaching out to educators or local non-profits, please do so. I have met many young adults who need communication devices and do not have them, because the families do not know how to take the necessary steps to do this.

3) Some youth may need a communication notebook to help them keep track of their friends, when they reach out, etc. This can help them become more comfortable and regular communicators. It can also help one see who has returned communications.

4) Many youths need help at home polishing their conversational skills. Asking questions, paying attention to answers, who-what-when-where-how questions can be tricky. Practicing the back and forth of a conversation is not something to be taken for granted. This is something my daughter has come across many times.

5) Check your young adult’s communication. Make sure they are not accidentally ignoring messages or calls from others. I cannot count the times I have had to reach out to other parents and ask them if their young adult likes to text, is comfortable on the phone, etc. — because I see them not responding to my daughter and we just don’t know. This can’t be a one-way street. Both families need to help in many cases.

6) Encourage your young adult to follow their gut feelings. Not everyone in the world is meant to be friends with everyone else. Chemistry, mutual interests, and reciprocity are needed for real friendships, be they platonic or romantic. If your young adult simply does not feel as drawn to someone else, do not force them to be best friends. Kindness is usually warranted, but more than that should be the self-advocate’s choice.

In this new world, friendships mean more than they ever did. They can be the difference between happiness and depression. Between a social life and loneliness. Between a well-rounded life and an empty one. Between independence with circles of support and a life of dependence. People with intellectual and significant disabilities make some of the best friends one can find. It is worth the extra work one or both parties may have to make. Friends truly do make the world go round.

Getty image by Den Kuvaiev.

Originally published: July 19, 2020
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