For My Son With Disabilities, the Joy of Trick-or-Treating With a Buddy

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Parents of children with special needs often work tirelessly to do everything they can to help their kids, but there are certain needs that we, as parents, simply can’t fulfill. Like making friends for them.

One of my twin sons is legally blind, hearing-impaired, severely dyslexic and has had 24 surgeries in his 15 years of life but, surprisingly, that is not the hardest part of his struggles. With surgery, there’s a clear beginning and end, an expected outcome, healing and then completion.

The true heartbreakers are the missed connections and opportunities with other kids because he’s been in the hospital and out of school so often. The fun events he had to skip because he was having yet another surgery and couldn’t be exposed to potential germs or illness.

These are things that keep me up at night.

His identical twin brother does not have special needs, so it’s especially clear what is age-appropriate as far as forging friendships.

When my son was very little, I took him to a play group at a local school for the blind where he sang songs in circle time with other visually impaired and blind toddlers. I found the parents were as eager as the kids to connect — if not more so.

But in his preschool class of children with special needs, no one had play dates or birthday parties. His twin brother seemed to be invited to a party a week. Why were the families of kids with special needs different? Was the idea of reaching out too painful because it meant the risk of rejection?

When I finally invited another child for a play date, his mother wept with astonishment and appreciation. Our kids were doing something everyone else’s kids did.

This inspired me to have a little end-of-year celebration for my son’s small preschool class in our backyard. Everyone came and some brought wrapped gifts even though it wasn’t a birthday party. It was clear that this was the first party most of the children had been invited to. I had a few more parties, but as kids grow older, parents naturally step back, leaving the kids to bond with the friends of their choosing — the typical way.

In elementary school, my son with disabilities lagged behind his twin in friendships and maturity. He could not see faces clearly and missed social cues. It wasn’t until middle school, a time I feared the most for him, that he truly connected with a friend. This boy lived right in our neighborhood but had attended a different elementary school, so they didn’t know each other. Then they started riding the middle school bus together and bonded because the other boy also had some visual struggles. They found that they both loved cats and video games, so they started to hang out.

My son used his white cane to walk to this friend’s house, which turned out to be just around the block. I would stand at my dining room window and watch him disappear around the corner with his cane swaying back and forth in front of him just as he had been trained to do. I felt anxious about letting him go, worrying that he might get lost, but I was proud of his courageous independence.

His friend’s family even took him with them for an overnight trip to Cape Cod. My son, who is medically fragile, had an incident at the beach that required medical assistance, which his friend’s mom handled like a pro.

My son is now a sophomore in high school and has made several friends through school and our church youth group. Despite his limited vision, he has found a passion in film, photography and editing videos. He even films the high school football games for his TV production class and has wonderful teachers and fellow classmates who support him.

His confidence is growing daily. When he visited one friend’s house, the dad texted my husband ahead of time to make sure they had some of our son’s favorite snacks, which was so sweet.

Last Halloween, he went trick-or-treating with a friend whose dad gleefully accompanied them, dressed in full costume himself. He went along to help keep our son safe in the dark, because of his limited vision and his own son’s special needs. This dad innately understood the importance of their friendship.

Although our son still shares activities with his twin, the social validation of spending time with other children his age who actively choose his company is something precious. As parents, our job is to be there to encourage and guide but stay out of the way, too. As much as we may want to intervene and orchestrate at times, friendships form through exposure to other kids with shared interests; true friendships need time and space to develop.

It took a while, but by now, being able to go trick-or-treating with a real friend makes those fun-size candy bars taste extra sweet.