Helping Individuals with Special Needs Develop Friendships

Categories: ASD and DD, Adult-focused

From early childhood all the way through the “golden years,” friendships improve the quality of our lives. Our friends help us feel connected, loved, and supported. They give us an outlet for venting frustrations or sharing exciting news. For individuals with special needs, friendships are especially important because they also provide opportunities to improve social skills, practice ways to interact, and boost self-confidence.

Developing and maintaining friendships can be difficult for people with special needs. Communication and behavioral challenges and/or physical impairments can hinder a person’s ability to talk or engage meaningfully with a peer. Individuals who have trouble socializing and expressing themselves sometimes rely on others to facilitate friendships for them. Family members or program staff often play “matchmaker,” connecting their loved one or client with others who have similar interests, likes, and capabilities.

As a behavior analyst working with adults who have intellectual disabilities, I find friendships to be extremely valuable for helping them improve their social skills. By interacting with others, a person can learn to ask questions, give answers, make eye contact, shake hands, and actively participate in a discussion. Friendships also provide opportunities to spend time engaging in appropriate behaviors with others.

Making friends involves being in the right place at the right time. Baseball games, libraries, dances, and self-advocacy groups are great places to connect with others who may have similar interests. Before facilitating a friendship, however, it’s important to determine whether or not the person with special needs wants to make friends. You can do this by asking him or her directly, or by observing this person in the company of others. Smiling, gazing, and pointing (especially for someone who has limited verbal skills) are great indicators of interest and attraction.

Once this person makes a connection, he or she may need help developing and maintaining the friendship. As a family member or supporter, you can help by providing the friends with options for meaningful activities. This may mean helping the individual prepare a meal for the new friend or suggesting that the friends meet for an afternoon movie. You can also encourage and assist him or her make telephone calls or send emails to the new friend.

Helping individuals with special needs make friends requires careful consideration. Some people may need guidance and support around how to socialize with others. This might involve teaching them the social skills necessary to communicate and interact appropriately. For example, you might provide a list of questions for a person to ask his or her new friend. You can also suggest topics to discuss. Set up a role-playing exercise so he or she can practice asking and answering these questions, and talking about these topics with you.

You might also help by explaining the importance of respecting boundaries. And, setting up a schedule for contact is a great way to ensure that the individual does not overwhelm his or her new friend with phone calls, texts, or emails.

Throughout the course of the friendship, you should check in to make sure he or she is happy, feels safe, and wants to continue the relationship. The individual should understand that he or she may choose to end the friendship at any time for any reason.

As family members, advocates, and supporters of people with special needs, it is important for us to facilitate and foster safe and meaningful friendships in their lives. These friendships offer a sense of belonging and purpose to the individuals we love and support. Helping them develop and maintain friendships can be rewarding for us, and can make their lives more fun, meaningful, and worthwhile.

By Teka J. Harris, M.A., BCBA

May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis, serving individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, brain injury and neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded more than 65 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. For more information, call 800.778.7601  or visit