Saturday, October 20, 2012

Friendships: Is an extra chromosome required?

Ok, this is for my Soul-Sisters (and Brothers): Does your child with Down syndrome have other friends with DS? Not the “kid I see because our parents are friends” acquaintance. Real, solid friendships with peers with DS?

My husband takes Sofia to the Learning Program reading group once a month. Invariably he comes home depressed and upset. One of today’s issues was about friendship. With older kids/young adults, there are activities like AIM (Advocates In Motion) or Special Olympics where they can meet peers. With younger kids, do you force specific friendships based on the extra chromosome? Or do your family’s friendships come organically from your surroundings? For example, our social life as a family is based mostly on the day school and on the synagogue. Well, Sofia is the only child with DS in the day school, and the only person under age 25 with DS at the synagogue. In her public school, she is the only child with DS in the entire first grade (which also means she is the only first grader with DS in the entire town).

Elementary school is a time when children start to make their own friends, based on mutual interest, rather than on the parents’ friendships.  How does this play out for your child with DS?

Sofia has lots of “friends” at school. I took her in yesterday at lunch time, after she’d been out sick for a day and a half. When we walked in to the cafeteria, four full tables of children screamed “Sofia’s Here!” and practically mobbed her! It was very gratifying. But Sofia did not seem to respond to any one child in particular.  She has only one friend at school with whom she has play dates, the girl she has been pulled with for speech and academic support since they were in preschool. They play together, but I don’t get the sense that Sofia “loves” H in the way that “best friends” usually love each other. (H has learning differences that are similar to Sofia’s, but not T21). Rather, H’s mom and I are the ones who make the play dates; the girls don’t request them.

In the day school, Sofia loves and is loved by her classmates, but they do not have play dates as individuals. When we get together with families, Sofia and her peer may or may not play together. Frequently, Sofia is more likely to be engrossed in the toys at someone else’s house. If the other child wants to play with her, great, but if the other child moves on to another activity, Sofia is perfectly happy to just keep playing with toys.

If your elementary-school aged child has friends with DS, where do they connect? School? Or other activities? Which activities?

One of the reasons I do not do a lot of in-person DS events is Comparison. When Sofia was a baby, I had a lot of problems with other moms, whose kids were not developing at the same pace as Sofia, comparing the children and becoming upset. That distressed me, and I began to shy away from too many direct interactions with other kids the same age with DS. The few friends we have in person have children a year or two older or younger than Sofia (and most are boys), which makes it easier to ignore the developmental differences.

But David goes to this reading program once a month, and sees a bunch of kids with DS who are close to Sofia’s age, who are doing… “more” things… better than… UGH! All the words I hate to use! I hate to compare! So how do I help my husband cope with his need to compare? And is there a “right” answer?

Are we doing Sofia a disservice by not fostering more “peer” friendships at this age? By purposely doing “regular” activities as a family rather than specific Special Needs activities? Sofia is in the Inclusion class in the Public School, plus twice a week she is part of the first grade class at the day school. She attends gymnastics, swimming, and ballet/tap classes every week. Isn’t that enough? Or not even close?

And does “peer” have to mean specifically Down syndrome? There’s a girl from gymnastics who has Autism. She is two years older than Sofia, but they are a riot together (so much so that they had to be split into different classes, because they were too disruptive together). They love each other. In this relationship, Sofia is the leader; J will follow whatever she is doing (which is why they disrupt the class; if Sofia gets distracted, J follows her.). Is J a “valid” peer relationship?