Do you want to do something to help give people with different needs an opportunity to be more socially included in your community? Look into volunteer opportunities at Best Buddies, Autism Society of America, or Down Sydrome Foundation (October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month!). Or do a search for local groups who promote friendship for people with different needs, such as All Friends Network in Florida, or Positive Community Connections on Long Island.
Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD 10.14.21
Community inclusion has long been a goal for people with different needs and those who support them. An overview of disabilities by the CDC shows that 26% of the adult population in the United States has some form of disability. That is 61 million people in all. Of these, 13.7% have a mobility impairment, 10.8% have cognitive impairments, 5.9% have hearing impairments and 4.6% have vision impairments. 6.8% have difficulty with independent living and 3.7% have difficulty with basic self-care skills.
Over the past several decades, there has been a great deal of progress within our systems to promote inclusion, such as less reliance on segregated classrooms in the school, better workplace opportunities for people who don’t fit into a certain employment box, and better accessibility features in public spaces. All of the work that has been done by people with different needs along with those who support them has been fantastic, and our world today is a much better place for inclusion than it was 30 years ago.
In addition to increased opportunities, we have seen significant changes in community awareness and acceptance for individuals with different needs. Across the country we have organizations whose focus is to promote awareness and inclusion, such as Autism Speaks, The National Down Syndrome Society, and The Arc. There are movies and television series that showcase life with different needs, including Love on the Spectrum, Born This Way, Raising Tourette’s, and Atypical. Placing these shows in the mainstream helps to create awareness and acceptance in our communities.
Despite these improvements and increased awareness, people with diverse abilities often continue to struggle to fit into the world comfortably. What are some things that we, as members of our communities, can be doing to help improve opportunities for inclusion?
Start by looking at the gifts you have in your own life – gifts of time, gifts of talent, gifts of financial resources. How do you use these gifts? For the most part, people use these gifts regularly to help themselves and their families, prioritizing the people closest to themselves. For example, if you have a gift of some free time, you will likely use that time to do something you enjoy, with family, friends, or time to yourself. Enjoying and appreciating what you have in the way of time, talent, and money is vital to your well-being and to help you stay connected to those who are important to you in your life. While I strongly encourage everyone to do more to use their gifts to improve their own lives and the lives of those close to them, I would also challenge people to look at some ways they can give back for the sake of others in the community.
With so many people in need and so many causes, each of us has a multitude of ways to give back to our communities. I could easily go through the attributes of a number of causes, but today our focus is inclusion for people with different needs, specifically, those with intellectual disability or neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism. These individuals are often left out socially, and have a much higher rate of unemployment than the general population. In addition, social isolation is a chronic problem. 24% of adults who have intellectual and neurodevelopmental differences state that they do not feel that they have people they can confide in comfortably.
So, what can you do?
Start with your gifts of time and talent. If you were to carve out even one hour a week to either spend time with someone who has different needs, or to volunteer at a local organization who supports people with different needs, you could make a big difference. There are plenty of opportunities to volunteer at larger events also, including fundraisers, social events and other activities. Some examples include Night to Shine, a red-carpet event that takes place once a year in towns and cities around the world for people with different needs, and Els for Autism events that take place throughout the year. Consider also how some of your own skills and talents may be used to help – are you good at organization? If so, helping with fundraisers may the the thing for you. Are you confident with your social skills and could you help someone with issues related to friendship? Maybe spending time with people who are socially isolated is where you can best use your talent to help with inclusion.
Now, think about your gifts of financial and material resources. With this, the most obvious thing is to find a good organization or foundation who supports community inclusion and opportunities for people with unique needs. There are hundreds of these organizations in our country to choose from – some with a national focus and others that have more impact on local experiences. Other ways to use financial and material gifts to help with inclusion may include investing resources into providing more opportunities for people. For example, if you own or manage a business, perhaps you could consider committing to hiring one or more people with different needs to help out in your business. Not only do you help by providing a chance for gainful employment, but you also provide opportunities for social engagement and interaction that can be severely lacking for many people with different needs.
So if you are looking to make a difference in our ever-changing and complex world, take some time to consider making a difference for some people who still need our help and support to be meaningfully included in our communities. You may find yourself amazed at the impact you can have for the benefit of others.
Everyone on earth has challenges to cope with every day. Big challenges, little challenges, and often multiple challenges. Despite difficulty, there is a tendency for a lot of people to avoid seeking or accepting help from others. Why is it hard for us to need help?
We are wired in many ways to do things on our own. This starts in childhood – children are often insistent that they can do things by themselves, even when they can’t quite. The “I can do it” attitude is nurtured in childhood for good reason – we want children to grow into independent and competent adults.
We may also have a hard time asking for help because we don’t want to be a burden to other people. We are all aware that people are busy, that other people have their own things to deal with and challenges to overcome. Asking for someone to help us with something may feel like too much to ask.
In many cases, we don’t ask for help because we don’t want to appear weak or fragile. We may want to be seen as self-sufficient and capable of taking care of ourselves with no help.
Interestingly, though, one thing that often makes people feel really good about themselves is — wait for it —
So – in general – people feel good about helping other people, and at the same time – in general – people don’t like to ask other people for help. Isn’t there a better balance here for us to think about?
Thinking about this in terms of balance, as individuals we need to consider what we need in the way of big asks and little asks. On a daily basis, do we ask people to help us with little things? Asking a family member to take out the garbage, asking a friend for a small favor? Some daily small asks may feel easy, because we do them frequently and don’t need to put a lot of thought into them. Asking a family member to help with a chore is nearly a no-brainer because it is part of daily life and we are all in it together as a family. These types of helps are a little easier to balance.
But asking for bigger help, for bigger things, is a more challenging issue. During the pandemic, for example, people have needed to ask for help in unprecedented ways. Outside of the pandemic, there are always times that people need help but still don’t ask. It can be so difficult to do this. So how can we correct this imbalance?
It seems like we need to stop thinking of ourselves as potential burdens and start thinking of ourselves as part of a fellowship of human beings, who can best enjoy the time we have together on earth by helping and doing for others, and allowing others to help and do things for us. The phrases we hear, such as “It takes a village” or “Do unto others“, are meaningless if we don’t ask for or accept help. Opening your mind and your heart to the notion of letting someone else help you is the first step towards having better balance.
Asking someone for help in a time of need can, in some ways, be seen as a gift to the other person. Keep in mind that people feel good about helping other people, for the most part. So if you trust someone enough to ask for help in a time of need, you are gifting them with this trust, and gifting them with the opportunity to help someone they care about.
Offering help is an equal gift. When you know someone is struggling, offer to help. If she declines help but you believe she needs some support, find a different way to provide the support. An example if this might be if you have a friend who is ill, and you ask if she needs anything and she says no. Instead of just accepting the “no”, you could drop off some food at her home or send a thinking-of-you note to her to brighten her day while she recovers.
Finding this balance within relationships is an important piece of the equation. We have to be able to trust friends enough to ask them for support, but we also have to trust people to let us know when they can’t provide the support we need because of their own busy schedules, stress, or other burdens they have at the time. If you have one or two trusted friends that you know you can count on in times of need, you should be able to have honest conversations about what is possible in the way of help and support at any given time.
One final thought about seeking and accepting help when needed has to do with professional support. If you are sick, you likely will go to a doctor. If you need a haircut, you will likely go to a hairdresser. But if you need professional help in the way of counseling, or special support for your children (such as special education or behavioral therapy), it is often more difficult to take the steps to seek this help. Sometimes people may see this as a weakness or a stigma. It is so important that we strive to help reduce this perception. If you or someone you care about needs emotional or behavioral support, there are thousands of talented, compassionate and highly trained professionals to help people get through challenging times.
To find a better balance we can all benefit from looking for more ways to be supportive to others, while opening up our own minds to allow others to be supportive to us. With this balance, there is a potential for benefit to everyone.
Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD, BCBA, LBA
After several months of lighter restrictions, along with outdoor activity options that gave all of us more opportunities for safe socializing, now we are seeing tighter restrictions in many states and communities as the pandemic hits a second wave. In much of the country, it is getting colder outside, making it more difficult to find safe places to socialize outside the family home.
This is really challenging for all of us. We miss the easy get-togethers, being able to see friends and family without a second thought. Many of us have made changes to holiday plans and traditions to protect ourselves and our loved ones. As much as we are struggling with the new social normal, it is especially challenging for kids and teens, and even more challenging for kids and teens with autism and other different needs.
One of my biggest interests is and always has been to help kids, teens and adults who have different needs to find friendship and social inclusion at school and in the community. We have come a long way in the past 20 years with schools, colleges and communities establishing many resources and opportunities for people with different needs to be involved, and to find friends. Now, with the pandemic, many of these opportunities are not available. This leaves us searching for options to help kids and teens find ways to stay connected and social in a healthy and fulfilling way. These ideas and resources will be helpful for anyone who is looking for ways to help their children with positive and fun social interaction, safely.
The following ideas are just a few suggestions for possibilities to help with socialization – please make sure as a parent that you screen and monitor anything you allow your child participate in virtually. These ideas could be beneficial for kids and teens with and without different needs.
- Tik Tok. Just kidding! This will not help.
- Many of you already know about Kahoot, but if not, check it out. Not only does ot have educational activities, but it can also be used to set up interactive games online with friends or family.
- Interactive game apps. One good one that is free to use is Psych, which users download then play together using a code. The app can be found on Apple or Google Play. There are some paid in-app options as well for extra game decks.
- Watching movies together remotely. One way to do this is through Teleparty (previously called Netflix party). Users are able to watch a movie at the same time, with an option to chat while watching.
- Try some online extra-curricular activities with Outschool. This website has thousands of classes for students that focus primarily on health and wellness. If you type in the search bar for you will find quite a few classes with a focus on socialization. You can also search by age, day, format, length of class, etc. These classes will have a fee, and the prices vary depending on the class.
- Local resources. Our communities are scrambling to move things to virtual and online formats to accommodate a variety of needs. This ranges from curbside pickup for local boutiques who have updated websites to provide more shopping options, to expanded takeout food options, to virtual or parking lot church services, to a tremendous increase in the use of virtual meeting platforms for businesses. Within your own community, look to places like libraries, churches, parks and recreation departments, and community centers to see what social activities are available virtually.