What my son with special needs taught me about friendship during the pandemic

By Sara Korber-DeWeerd
My 10-year-old with Down syndrome has plenty of friends, because his understanding of who a friend can be is far more inclusive than my own.

Anecdotal evidence and studies concur: one of the toughest aspects of the pandemic has been limited close contact with friends and family. This is especially true for kids with disabilities, who are often some of the most popular kids at school, but experience more limited peer interaction outside of school.

In March 2020, my kids’ peer interactions dropped from seven hours a day to almost zero. Overnight. It was traumatic for each of them. Now, as more people receive vaccinations, weather warms, and activities resume, their world has thankfully expanded again. Still, I’ve spent many hours worrying about my fourth-grade son, in particular.

Grade 4 is a year when many kids start building long-lasting peer bonds. My son also has Down syndrome. His developmental delays sometimes complicate his ability to navigate friendship. So even as our world opened again, my routine fretting about the lack of social opportunities for our family extrovert weren't instantly eased. If anything, my mind went into overdrive, devising ways to fill his summer with all the experiences and people he’s been missing.

Relax, I have had to remind myself. Go easy. Give it time. In my impatience, I was missing something beautiful unfold before me.

As things have reopened and grown safer these last couple of months, I’ve witnessed my son’s mood, behavior, and sleep improve. What I couldn’t figure out was, why? With few interruptions, he enjoyed in-person school all year. It’s not as if playdates have increased significantly, because most kids are not vaccinated yet. Who or what, then, was helping my son to emerge from under his cloud?

Recently, in the middle of my usual Monday morning hustle and first-day-of-the-week scheduling frenzy, it hit me. My definition of friend has been all wrong. My son is surrounded by friends again. I just couldn’t see it. I was looking for boys his age who like what he likes. I didn’t realize my son’s definition of a friend is far broader than mine.

One of his best friends lives down the road from us. She’s eight. She goes to a different school. But her mom and I went to college together and were roommates our first year of teaching. Our two kids make an unlikely pair. She loves Barbies; he loves baseball. It turns out they both play a mean game of cricket.

Watching their relationship grow this past year has taught me how narrow my definition of friendship has been. My friend’s daughter is the perfect friend. She’s intuitive, just like my son. She’s a careful decision maker, an influence he needs in his life. She’s patient, something required when he gets frustrated or acts on impulse. She’s incredibly imaginative, just like him. How could I have missed all the signs of this beautiful relationship that probably grew because of the pandemic, because we were home more often and our families were part of the same “pod”?

As I watch the ways reconnecting with familiar faces thrills him, I’m learning just who my son’s friends are. There’s our school custodian. They have a running joke where they call each other the wrong names and laugh about it every time. There’s a family friend and colleague from the school where my husband and I teach, who shares our son’s exuberance for life. And then there are the handful of families in our close-knit friend group that have kept seeing each other outdoors in all kinds of weather. My little guy is friends with all of them—not just the kids, but the teens and adults, too.

Even at home, my son has some pretty great buddies. He and I love to cook and play sports together. He loves playing imaginary games with his sisters. He loves helping Dad with projects and playing ping pong before bed. He loves snuggling the dog on a sunny square of the deck, and slipping his furry pal morsels of food when he thinks no one is looking. And we can’t leave out our very large extended families who we will finally be able to visit again this summer.

As I thought about all of this the other day, I realized how limited my definition of friendship has been. So much so, that I missed what was right in front of me even before the pandemic. My 10-year-old with Down syndrome has plenty of friends, because his understanding of who a friend can be is far more inclusive than my own. To him, a friend is simply a person you share something with—a common interest, a regular laugh, or even just time in one another’s presence. Age, gender, and ability have little to do with what makes someone a friend. Never hemmed in by convention, my son’s world is far richer than I recognized.

That doesn’t mean the challenges of navigating peer relationships are over. Those remain much the same as they were before the pandemic hit us; the interruptions in school and social life mean my son is still working on a lot the same soft skills he was a year ago. Still, as I paused that Monday to consider all this, I felt a weight lift. I could at least lay the self-created part of my burden down. Maybe I could even let my son’s understanding of friendship inform my own relationships.

The pause. The deep breath. The wash of gratitude that often comes when I’m relieved to be wrong. And this: Friendship is more than I imagined it could be.