Community inclusion

The Balance & Beauty of Friendship: The Importance of “Typical” Friends for a Child with Special Needs

One of the most special things in our journey of advocacy, inclusion, awareness and everyday life with Zach is seeing the abundance of “real”, natural, easy friendships he has been gaining with kids who do not have special needs. At first, it was merely family friends or neighbors or friends of his little sister. But now, he’s a lucky boy with several friendships that he can call his own with typical friends. They’re his and they’re so important to him (and us). Here’s a few reasons why:

Wendy Zook Photography, Down Syndrome awareness, Down syndrome, family with Down Syndrome, DS advocacy, inclusion, special needs family, special needs friendships

Something to call his own
Zach and Addie share almost everything -- toys and snacks and homework help and a lot of hugs. As much as I love that our circle of friends and Addie’s group of buddies all love and welcome Zach, it’s so important that he has friends of his own. Friends his age and in his class and friends who are loving him by choice, not because they have to.

Let’s open their eyes
Z-Man isn’t the only one to get something out of a friendship like this. He allows a new friend to see differences in people, understand and appreciate those differences and respect the HECK out of a friend who may be different from them. Perhaps that child will be kind to people -- especially people who are not the same as him or her -- all their life.

Wendy Zook Photography, Down Syndrome awareness, Down syndrome, family with Down Syndrome, DS advocacy, inclusion, special needs family, special needs friendships

Monkey see, monkey do
By having similar-age, typical friends, Zach will undoubtedly be pushed to be stronger and faster; to speak clearer and communicate more often; to keep up with them in all of the ways. These friendships give Zach a peer role model and create a safe space to keep working on all of his skills.

What about the parents?
Let’s not forget the moms and dads of these friends -- by having Zach as a friend, these kiddos are going home and perhaps opening up the eyes and hearts of their parents. I know for a fact that conversations -- beautiful conversations about acceptance and love and differences -- have been started at homes across our town after a playdate with Z-man.

Wendy Zook Photography, Down Syndrome awareness, Down syndrome, family with Down Syndrome, DS advocacy, inclusion, special needs family, special needs friendships
Wendy Zook Photography, Down Syndrome awareness, Down syndrome, family with Down Syndrome, DS advocacy, inclusion, special needs family, special needs friendships

But I also love that by simply having a new friend on your average Tuesday afternoon doing regular kid things speaks volumes louder than any choreographed discussion about special needs.

These are just two kids who have a great time together, probably without counting any chromosomes at all.

Accepting My Boy: What a Community’s Inclusion of my Son with Special Needs Means for Him and Them

It’s a neighborhood concert night and everything is perfect -- the weather is comfortable and sunny; the music is so awesome; there are familiar faces everywhere from our little Lake Linganore community. Oh, and there is a group of boys playing football in a circle just below our chairs. There’s about eight of them and they’re all relatively the same age, splitting off into teams and tossing the ball back and forth to one another and pitching it into imaginary end zones. They’re all getting equal play time and they seem like they’ve been best friends forever.

But here’s the thing. There’s an extra chromosome in this group. There’s a boy wearing bright yellow shorts who belongs to me and my heart. And this Momma Heart is so happy to see Zachary right in there with the kids.

Wendy Zook Photography, Down Syndrome Awareness, Community Inclusion, Special Needs, Special Needs Parent, DS Advocacy, Down Syndrome Parent

Zachary is different -- but aren’t we all? -- and I have hoped against hope for moments and days like this. The ordinary moments that showcase how kids have the right idea -- they see innocence and belonging and sameness while we adults tend to search right for the differences. These kids saw a boy their age with a willingness to throw a football and for them it was a no-brainer to scoop him up into their game.

But these moments aren’t always guaranteed. There is no promise that this will keep happening in two years or five years. What I do know is that right now and right here, this community has wrapped its arms around my son and given him the ability to just be one of the kids and to fit in just fine.

Wendy Zook Photography, Down Syndrome Awareness, Community Inclusion, Special Needs, Special Needs Parent, DS Advocacy, Down Syndrome Parent

It’s at the neighborhood concerts and while passing time at the bus stop. It’s in the hallways of the school and out at daily recess. The support and inclusion of my son -- at other kids’ birthday parties and playdates and conversations -- this is the happy warmth in my heart that brings me such great joy. It’s why we chose a path of inclusion at school and why we include him as often as possible in all of our normal daily adventures and to-dos.

Wendy Zook Photography, Down Syndrome Awareness, Community Inclusion, Special Needs, Special Needs Parent, DS Advocacy, Down Syndrome Parent

I like to think that I wasn’t the only person who saw this scene at the neighborhood concert -- that kids who were on the fence saw how welcomed Zach was by other kiddos; that some parents felt pride for their children in the football game; that other parents had meaningful conversations with their kids that night or the next day; that parents of younger kids would start a journey of getting them to be the ones that play football on a summer night with a new friend who happens to have an extra chromosome.

I am so grateful for our neighborhood, our school, our community. I’m so grateful for football games and music and joy.