Both of my children with disabilities receive an inclusive education — since kindergarten. They are now in middle school.

I’ve been fortunate. I have not had to fight for them to be included in the two school districts my kids have been enrolled in. 

We did rethink how to do inclusion as my youngest, who has Down syndrome, entered middle school. We are happy with her schedule and the balance she has of regular classes and the time she spends in the special education classroom.

Related: Rethinking Inclusion for My Daughter With Down Syndrome

As parents of kids with disabilities, many of us fight for this inclusion to happen. We want out kids to learn alongside their typical peers. The thing is, our kids can be excluded even when included in mainstream education. If they are sitting on their own or with their paraprofessional, if they cannot keep up with conversations, if they are not developmentally at the same stage as their classmates, chances are they are not connecting with their peers. At least not in meaningful ways that lead to real friendships.

I have been to the middle school several times this year. Mostly to help with fun activities in my daughter’s special education classroom. I have had the opportunity to watch her interactions with her typical peers. Kids know her, many greet her and say hello. She even has a group of girls from her elementary school that she sits with during lunch. But that doesn’t mean she’s part of the group.

During lunch, she sits at the same table as the other girls, but the cafeteria is loud. The girls talk and giggle and speak so fast. My daughter cannot keep up with the fast pace of the conversations. Once in a while she tries to ask them questions or interact with them, but as soon as they respond they move on from interacting with her. She is sitting right in the middle of the girls, yet she is not a part of the group. It breaks my heart.

These are nice girls, and while we call them “friends,” they are not really her friends. They are not inviting my daughter to their parties or wanting to spend time with her outside of school. 

Related: My Kindergartner With Down Syndrome Has a Friend

Now that we are in middle school, the developmental gap continues to grow. It was much easier in elementary school. We did get party invitations and I heard from other moms how much their little girls loved my rascal. Even in fourth and fifth grade she had the most amazing friend of all. A friend who invited her for playdates after school, invited her to her birthday parties, and who naturally facilitated connections between my daughter and other girls. But it is now middle school. My kid is in a fully inclusive learning environment, but she has no real friends in this setting. 

I wish friendships were as simple as they were when she was little.

But I have also watched her interact with her friends in the special education classroom. I have watched her tease, laugh, and play with peers who, like her, have intellectual disabilities. They have fun together. They learn together. They help each other. They are patient with each other when speaking, or when someone uses a communication device. 

An inclusive education leads to many positive interactions between typical kids and disabled kids, (and this is important). But it doesn’t necessarily mean true friendships.

This is why friendships for our kids within their own communities are so important. This is why we are trying to prioritize events put out by our local disability organizations. Why we make it a priority to go out for lunch or do an activity with her friend who has Down syndrome (and who goes to a different school). 

I have many friends who have adult children with disabilities. Their children have busy (and I mean busy) social lives, spending time with friends who are disabled, like them. 

As parents, I wonder if we place too much hope in friendships developing as a result of inclusive education — as if having typically developing friends was the “goal.” My goal for inclusive education is for my kid to learn while at school. To learn to interact with typical peers — who she will be working with as an adult. If a real friendship stems from that, great.

But when it comes to friendships, I am encouraged and happy because my kids belong to communities where they will find life-long friendships and support. They may not have many friends at school, but they can have friends to hang out with after school, or on the weekends, or during summer break. You know, real friends. 

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