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Finding new ways to help kids with disabilities make friends

It's not always easy for young children to make new friends. For children with physical disabilities or chronic illnesses, the challenge of developing friendships can be even greater–especially if their disabilities prevent them from participating in certain social activities, or if their peers lack knowledge and understanding about their condition.

But without friends, children's social development may be compromised. That's why kids, especially those with disabilities, sometimes need a little extra help from their parents and teachers to make and keep friends.

In an effort to aid those parents and teachers, the U-M Health System (UMHS) Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, in partnership with the Washtenaw Intermediate School District, will conduct two studies to look at the success of existing activities and find new ways for adults to increase social interaction for children with and without disabilities.

The Adult Facilitation of Social Integration studies are a three-year project funded by the Department of Education's Office of Special Education Programs.

The studies will explore the relationship between the methods parents and teachers use to facilitate social interactions for children with disabilities and those children's overall quality of life.

Past evidence suggests that children with disabilities tend to experience more social isolation and challenges with social integration than their peers. This situation typically is the result of the stigma often attached to those with physical or mental disabilities and a lack of peer understanding about their disabilities, says the studies' co-principal investigator Pamela Dixon, a lecturer in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.

"Social integration is really a cycle," Dixon says. "When children don't have social encounters, they don't learn how to interact with others, and then, ultimately, others don't want to interact with those children."

But with the help of parents and teachers, that cycle can be broken. In fact, social integration programs in schools have had a positive effect on peer relations of children with disabilities.

The success of a child's socialization through mainstream and special education school programs is due to several factors, including the child's social skills, peer acceptance, teacher facilitation and family circumstances.

In an effort to learn more about the ways teachers and parents can help contribute to the social integration of children with disabilities, Dixon and a team of investigators will look at a group of 200 children, with and without disabilities, and their parents and teachers.

The children, ages 6-12, will take part in an interview about friendship and undergo neuropsychological testing. Looking at pre-teen children is especially important to the study since the foundation for peer integration is typically built in elementary school, Dixon says.

By comparing children with and without disabilities, those conducting the studies hope to reveal the impact a disability has on a child's social integration with his peers and how it contributes to social isolation.

The team also will collect information from the children's parents and teachers through a questionnaire. Parents will be asked to provide information about their family life and parenting, while teachers will be asked about their methods of integrating children with disabilities in the classroom.

"We hope this will allow us to provide parents and teachers with good information on what contributes to social integration," Dixon says. "Previous research has demonstrated that although children with disabilities are mainstreamed and thus physically present in the classroom, they are often not socially integrated. Our goal is to investigate what contributes to full integration and inclusion."

Other members of the research team include: co-principal investigator Seth Warschausky, associate professor, Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation; co-investigator Mary Spence, Washtenaw Intermediate School District; project coordinator Sunny Roller, Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation; and research assistant Heidi Lengyel, Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.

To learn more about children with disabilities research and treatment at UMHS, call (734) 936-7052 or visit

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