All Kids Need Friends, with Zach Rossetti

3 images of a happy Zach Rossetti with his brother Todd on a wheelchair
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Most people count their friendships among the most important relationships they have. Kids with disabilities are no different; they want all the same opportunities to meet and connect with peers as anyone else. 

So what can parents and teachers do to help facilitate the sorts of ongoing, mutually reciprocal interactions that lead to true friendship? Dr. Zach Rossetti is a special education professor who has seen the ways schools, teams, and clubs sometimes fall short of meeting the social needs of kids with disabilities. Zach says that parents and teachers can do more to foster better friendship-building opportunities: it starts with enabling a shared space for social engagement, then simply getting out of the way. 

We need to teach kids—all kids, not just kids with disabilities—the social skills that will help them connect with one another, including with kids that are different from them. And of course, inclusive education is an important ingredient in the recipe for healthy friendships. 

Zach Rossetti, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Special Education in the Wheelock College of Education & Human Development at Boston University. A former elementary school special education teacher and inclusion facilitator from New Hampshire, Dr. Rossetti’s research focuses on social interactions and friendships between students with and without intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD. He is co-author of Affirming disability: Strengths-based portraits of culturally diverse families and Seeing the Charade: What We Need to Do and Undo to Make Friendships Happen; associate editor for Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities; and serves on the editorial boards of several related journals. He is personally and professionally inspired by his brother Todd, who was a huge Red Sox fan and had cerebral palsy. 

Friendships are not vertical relationships. True friendships are horizontal—they have no power imbalance and develop organically. Fostering a space for introductions to be made, then giving kids enough room and time to let relationships develop, is an important way to help all kids learn to see kids with disabilities as potential friends. I was thrilled to talk to Zach about his research on disability and friendship, and the solutions he envisions to help kids with disabilities build full, rewarding social lives.

Speaker 1 (00:00:05):

Welcome to The Good Things In Life podcast, committed to bringing world-class ideas, conversations, voices, and thought leaders to parents and educators. So kids with intellectual disabilities will have the support they need to build positive inclusive lives at the heart of community. Here’s your host sister, mom, researcher, writer, speaker, and perpetually curious Genia Stephen.

Genia  (00:00:40):

Zach Rossetti, thank you so much for joining me on The Good Things In Life podcast. I’m super excited that we were finally able to, um, book a time to talk about friendship. How are you today?

Zach (00:00:53):

Doing well, trying to stay cool in the heat and humidity. 

Genia (00:00:57):

Yeah. Yeah. Well, um, yeah, we’re having some gorgeous weather, which at this point in you’re in Boston, I’m in, um, Eastern Ontario and it’s not guaranteed at this time of year. You know, we still have those cold snaps in early June, so I’m appreciating it like. Zach, why don’t you start by introducing yourself and telling us a little bit about your story and, um, how you became committed in your work to people with disabilities in their families. 

Zach (00:01:30):

Sure. Yeah. Thank you. Uh Genia thank you so much for, uh, um, having me on the podcast. Um, I’m very excited to be here. Very excited to talk about friendships, um, between people with and without intellectual and developmental disabilities. Um, I am an Associate Professor in the Special Education Program at Boston University, um, in the, uh, BU WheelockCollege of Education & Human Development. Um, I just finished my 10th year here at BU thank you. It doesn’t seem like it means I’m getting old, uh, on one hand. But, uh, I, prior to this, I, uh, was a professor in the elementary and special ed program, um, at Providence College, uh, and all of the students there, um, received, uh, teaching licenses in both programs in both at Providence and BU um, the programs have, have really emphasized inclusive ed, which, uh, I’m very excited to be a part of. Um, I, prior to that, I, uh, was a special ed teacher, um, uh, T dorm counselor and tutor at a, uh, uh, separate, uh, school, uh, for, uh, young, uh, adults with, uh, uh, well segregated school, um, uh, and then became an inclusion facilitator, uh, as well.

Zach  (00:03:06):

And, and, um, so I, I did all of that. Most of that in New Hampshire, my teaching and inclusion facilitating, uh, career, um, towards the end of it, I, uh, decided to go back to school for my master’s as many, uh, teachers do. And, um, you know, luckily coincidentally, um, at the time the Institute on Disability in New Hampshire had, uh, uh, grants, um, to prepare teachers for inclusive education, uh, teachers and inclusion facilitators. And so my master’s was basically, um, you know, structured by that, uh, project. And so tons of, I had a I’ll get to my personal background in a sec. So I, I, I valued and believed in and was learning how to do inclusion prior to that, but then that just, you know, took, took it to another level. Um, and, uh, after that, I realized that more people need to know more about inclusive ed and, and why, uh, it’s so important and beneficial to kids with and without disabilities and, and, and how to do it.

Zach  (00:04:19):

Um, you know, in my teaching, I saw lots of teachers who, you know, I don’t think were, uh, evil people against, you know, benefits, right. They just didn’t know about inclusion and so encountered difficulties because they didn’t know how to do certain things or the school wasn’t set up certain ways to help them. Um, so I went back to school again for my doctorate, thinking that I could, uh, do that, reach more, uh, people by preparing teachers, you know, eventually, you know, prepare teachers to be inclusive. And then each of them would have their classes and, you know, I just kind of pictured that exponentially growing. Um, and that appealed to me and it was a good decision. I’m still in it. And I think doing, um, pretty well, uh, but all of this is, you know, all of this originates in my, to my own family.

Zach  (00:05:11):

Um, I’m the oldest of six. Uh, we grew up in New Hampshire. Um, my, you know, I’ve, I have wonderful siblings, uh, and the fourth, uh, sibling, uh, is, uh, my brother Todd. And Todd, uh, like, like most of us, not all of us is a huge, uh, Boston sports fan loves the Red Sox and Bruins in particular, uh, uh, is, um, uh, had, has a huge sweet tooth, loves sweets, loves, loves desserts, uh, and was incredibly outgoing, uh, was a very social guy. And it was always so impressive to me because number one, I do this for a living and in this context, once I get going, I, I feel comfortable, but in a social setting, like cocktail party or hanging out with people, I don’t know. Yeah. When I know when I know some, when I know, no, you, um, I’m comfortable in it and outgoing.

Zach  (00:06:17):

He is the type of person who loves that type of setting excels at it. People were drawn to him. Uh, he would leave, like I would be sweating and in the corner, quiet and leave, probably talking to just people. I knew he would leave, like having met tons of people and people would probably come up to me and say, oh, I talked to Todd and that’s amazing. And this and that. And, and all of that is, you know, secondly, like incredibly remarkable because you, he did it all, uh, without speaking, using a wheelchair and, and needing pretty constant support to get through his day, um, you know, due to his disability of, uh, cerebral palsy, he had pretty significant cerebral palsy. And, uh, you know, that, that piece of, uh, um, building social connections, which, which I think is incredibly important for all of us, um, and doing it without speaking and having a visible disability in a, in a country that still doesn’t quite understand disability so much and is able to us than a lot of ways and, um, was so impressive, extra impressive to me.

Zach  (00:07:36):

Uh, you know, and so I, I grew up, um, you know, with Todd. And, uh, recognizing that he was Todd first, like my other siblings were Eric and Megan and Shane and Mariah first and had strengths and needs. And I have individual relationships with each of them. Um, and, uh, I, I probably got into this, not just because I had that insider knowledge. Um, you know, I’m, I’m the oldest of six, I’m the oldest of all my cousins. So I probably was going to teach anyways, I worked at camps, I did all that. But as I got older and, and, you know, noticed, um, you know, out in the community, uh, people treated Todd differently than they treated me and my other siblings. And they didn’t see him the way that, uh, that, that I saw him, that we saw him. And so that dynamic, I kind of picked up on at a very early age and probably guided me towards special ed.

Zach  (00:08:48):

Um, you know, the other piece of it personally, um, I think was a factor is that, uh, um, my, our parents divorced during our school years. And so, um, you know, they each remarried and everyone’s happy. And, uh, but for a few years when my mom was a single mom with five of us at the time, including Todd, I at a pretty young age was kind of enlisted as, uh, you know, support. And so as a sibling and I, I you’re a sibling too, right? Yeah, yeah. As a sibling sometimes, you know, or not, sometimes that often happens where, and, and, uh, I think that I, I learned a lot of things, um, and picked up on a lot of things that, uh, lots of teachers don’t have until they start teaching. And so that was, I’d always thought that was a benefit and kind of a privilege of our growing up in our family. So I think that’s a lot there. I, there’s probably more, but yea.

Genia  (00:09:47):

I it’s, it’s interesting what you’re saying about your personal experience and also what you do professionally around teaching teachers. I recently had a conversation with Jacqueline Specht. Do you know, Jacqueline, um, of her she’s a researcher and a as well, and she just recently she’s re currently, or recently involved in research, looking at, you know, what are the, what are the facilitators or enablers of effective, um, inclusive education from the teacher’s perspective. And, and, you know, things like, you know, having opportunities during your teacher training, um, or having a, um, personal experience, or just a previous experience of being in relationship with somebody with disability or two of the things that made a significant difference in, um, both, I think confidence relate was more related to the team having a team that, um, but I can’t remember anyway, people can go back and listen to the episode with Jackie, uh, but, um, but definitely the, those two, um, variables were really important in teachers’ efficacy.

Genia  (00:11:05):

Um, it was efficacy confidence, and, and, um, for lack of a better word, I can’t remember what was used in the research, but enthusiasm. Like confidence that this will work. 

Zach (00:11:19):

And if it, you know, and if it, it doesn’t, uh, it likely well, but if it doesn’t, um, you know, kind of, what’s the harm, like least dangerous assumption piece, you, you realize like, it’s, it’s better that I tried there. There’s gotta be, there’s some benefit the student, uh, to the student, the family probably is in favor of this as well. And, um, yeah, that, that comfort level, and kind of, um, uh, I sometimes talk about it as, uh, breaking the ice, um, in, of interacting with someone with a disability, if you haven’t, you know, if you don’t know anyone with a disability, and there are some that are very visible there, there are, you know, some situations and challenging when you’re teaching and working and interacting with, with some individuals with disabilities that that can be, uh, you know, uh, include some, uh, challenging and unexpected behaviors.

Zach  (00:12:18):

And it, you know, it, it can be, um, new and awkward and scary, but like for the most part, it’s, you know, there’s no identity first language, but the people first language I think is so important because it emphasizes that common humanity. The people first, like you’re teaching third grade, like she’s a third grader first. Yeah. She uses a wheelchair or, yeah, she uses a communication device, but she’s a third grader first and she probably likes all of the other things that third graders likes and might need some help to do certain things, but, you know, so, yeah, I, I love that you brought that up. Cause I, I think that, uh, there’s an in the field that I, in the field of special ed in the name of helping students, um, there’s sometimes too much focus on, um, you know, on intervention and what, what teachers do.

Zach  (00:13:24):

And, and it’s a very traditional field. And then there’s still a lot of kind of medical model and deficit approaches. Um, but it ultimately, I think sometimes that just, uh, causes people to forget. That, yeah, like this is a child’s first a person first or, or a youth young adults, like, you know, and, and that’s the bigger picture. And I think one of the many reasons why I focus, um, you know, my research on, on friendship because ultimately, you know, if, if people live long lives, um, you know, school is just kind of a fraction, um, right. And, and, you know, you want, um, in life, um, and, and we’ll get into it. Um, you know, I think in school, out of school as adults, I mean, for all of us, some of the best things in lives are, you know, obviously family, but then are our friends. Right. Um, for a number of reasons.

Genia (00:14:26):

So, yeah. Yeah. So, I mean, I was going to ask you why friendship as a, as a focus of all the things that you focus on and your research, why friendship, but you’ve kind of, you’ve kind of answered that, right. It’s when we think about those universal, like what are the good things in life are our friends, our relationships are definitely, you know, um, at the, they may not be the top thing at the list, but they are among top things, um, on the list,

Zach (00:14:55):

I think so. And they, and they enhance everything else too. Right. Like I, you know, I, what do you remember about school, about elementary school? I mean, you might remember interactions with other people. Yeah. Like you might remember a favorite teacher and you obviously learned things and maybe a field trip stands out, but like when, when, when you, like, if it’s the people you went to school with, and maybe you have lasting friends from there, I moved.

Zach  (00:15:24):

So I don’t really have lasting friends from, uh, elementary school, but, but, um, my middle school and high school, uh, still in touch with a few friends, a couple from college, you know, a couple of those adults, I, that that’s what most people remember. And, and it enhances every aspect of life, I think. And, and, and when students have disabilities and, and, you know, I say this purposely and to challenge folks, and, but it really is, it’s, it’s, it’s abelist to forget that students with disabilities need and should have, and probably want friends, like we all do. And in the name of helping them, it’s it’s for a good cause. You know, I think we sometimes focus on interventions and forget about inclusion and forget about, um, being around peers and just kind of being a kid. And if you need support the many do that, that’s fine provide that support.

Zach  (00:16:27):

Um, but I, you know, I, I, part of this stems back to my brother, so my brother and I’m still, uh, getting used to, uh, I think I was using present tense earlier. I’m still getting used to past tense. My brother unfortunately passed away a couple of years ago in April and at the age of 39. Thank you. It’s yeah, it’s, it’s, it’s tough. It’s still tough. Uh, and, and, uh, as I’m sure, you know, others, uh, who have gone through that, um, no, um, uh, it Todd, so he was, he was 39, a couple of years ago, so he’s, he’s an, he would be, he’s an adult. He went to school in the, uh, eighties and nineties. Um, but he was among the first group of kids with pretty significant needs in New Hampshire to be included. And so he attended general ed, um, 


Genia (00;17:27):

Is Todd born in seventy nine?

Zach (00:17:30):

Eighty, in 80.

Genia  (00:17:32):

So my sister was born in 79. I’m just realizing how so, sorry to interrupt your story, but I’m just realizing how close the timelines are there as far as like the educational experiences, what was happening in both Canada and the US at that time. Yeah. But yeah. So his sister’s 41 now. 

Zach (00:17:53):

Yeah. So he was, uh, so it’s probably similar. I mean, I, I there’s, there was some inclusion he was included throughout school, which was great, you know, if, if we looked at it with the lens from today, um, in terms of how schools could be, can be structured in our structured, when they’re inclusive and, and, you know, more emphasis on academics like that wasn’t there for him, but he, he attended general ed classes. He had, um, you know, uh, lovely teachers who were trying their best and, and accepting classmates throughout.

Zach  (00:18:25):

And he really, if there was someone more popular than him in his schools, like we didn’t know, like he, he was so well-known whenever he went out, we were out in public, um, grocery store hockey ring, like theater, wherever, uh, people came over and said, hi, some, we knew many we didn’t. And they would say, oh, I, I was in school, I’m in class with thought, or I was in class last year, or I know all my see them in the cafeteria. So, I mean, that was amazing. And that was, uh, you know, I think one of many reasons inclusive ed is so important and beneficial. Um, but as I got older and started to, you know, become a teacher and teach, and then look a little more critically, um, despite that popularity I realized, you know, and part of it is the sibling, um, protectiveness that, that I’m sure you know about as well.

Zach (00:19:30):

Uh, I realized that people weren’t calling Todd, um, at, at home after school or on the weekends, and he, he didn’t really see anyone besides family, um, outside of school. And so I started to think that, uh, you know, to see some of these limits and, and think about that, that dynamic of being, um, you know, included and accepted and incredibly popular, but not befriended. And there was a limit there, th the, the dynamic was really, and so I’ve, I, I, you know, I didn’t like that. I, I, I thought, like I said, he, he, I loved hanging out with him. I was his sibling, but I, I saw how fun it was and how he could and should have friends. And, um, you know, I, I really kind of devoted myself to like, learning about that dynamic and trying to figure out how to change it.


Zach (00:20:27):

Um, I, you know, we, we had some good years around friendship and some successes, but overall, um, you know, he was still pretty socially isolated as an adult. And I, one of the things that I feel guilt about is, you know, despite doing this work, not being able to figure it out for my own brother. So it is hard. It is hard work. And I, you know, I, I, for folks who were listening and for you Genia, I, I, I apologize, but there’s not like one specific thing to do. That’s going to result in friendships. Fortunately, I know, I’m sorry. 

Genia (00:21:05):

Zach, I’m so disappointed. I’ve been waiting for months to coordinate this time to talk to you, because I was sure you were going to have the answer.

Zach (00;21:15):

No, I have. I have over the years through research, I’ve picked up, I think there, we have a framework and, and, and it, it, it is, uh, uh, shows lots of, uh, potential and there are successes maybe longer for some, you know, like my brother, Todd, maybe not super successful, but some successes here and there for some. So, so I, you know, and other people, and I’m curious, you know, uh, what you’ve encountered too, cause other people have slightly different dynamics, but still there are interesting dynamics around disability and friendships.

Zach  (00:21:49):

So one another mom, uh, an advocate and super leader, uh, that I know that her, her son who similarly has CP, um, is extremely high five, uh, at, uh, yeah. So kind of that well known and, and, and people say, hi, but it’s love that stays at that level. And that’s what I saw with Todd. Like, it seemed like people would say hi and give them a fist bump or something. And he would smile. He’s very, he was very expressive and it was like pleasant and people love that. And then they would walk on to their other friends or their real friends. And I just kind of wish that like, people kid, his peers stuck around and figure it out how to interact with him and get to know him and see if he, they liked him. And, you know, basically that he was in the pool of potential friends.

Zach  (00:22:51):

Cause I think for some kids with disabilities, maybe many they’re they’re, they’re seen differently and they’re not seen as a potential friend and that’s a problem. And there are things that we do special ed teachers do parents do sometimes that, that the way schools are structured, I think that could, that could help break that, that piece of it. 

Genia (00:23:13):

Um, let’s talk about that a little bit. I mean, I don’t have, I know you don’t have the, the answer or the magic, you know, the magic pill here. What, what are some things that are helpful that our facilitators are enablers as, you know, using the language I was using or,

Zach  (00:23:32):

Yeah. So I w one of the things I did was, um, looked at, I did a systematic review of research about friendships between people with, and without intellectual and developmental disabilities. Um, and, um, there were lots of friendships, um, in these studies and we know, you know, not enough, but we know people who have friends and it’s possible, and it can, and should happen say that first of all, um, despite it not happening.

Zach  (00:24:09):

So the bad news is that it doesn’t happen too frequently. Lots of people with intellectual disabilities spend time predominantly with, uh, family, um, others with intellectual disability, um, or people who are paid to be there. Um, and students with autism, um, many have in, in research and, uh, per, you know, personal experience, many have at least one friend, but the friendships tend to be, um, uh, uh, fewer overall and lower quality, shorter in duration. Um, you know, things like that. So it could be improved. And, and w you know, one student I knew, um, with autism, he had his best friend. Um, it was, they had, they shared interests. It was pretty reciprocal, but he honed in on him. And it was only that friend. And over the course of the year that I spent with this class, um, you know, that friend, um, started to, uh, reciprocate or kind of seek out his classmate with autism a little less, like over the year, it kind of fizzled out.

Zach  (00:25:21):

Cause I think it was too much, it was too hard. Um, so these are some of the dynamics that, that, that I think people might be familiar with on the, on the negative side of things. But the good news is that in this, in this review of research, um, among the friendships that happened, you know, these were students with very significant needs. It wasn’t like they all put the magic, social skills training and learned amazing social skills and then develop friendship. It’s not a readiness model. My brother, you know, social skills are helpful and they’re part of special ed, but it’s not a direct link from social skills to friendship. And shouldn’t be, everyone can and should have friends as they are. And that’s part of what this research showed. And, and part of, I think the approach is just reframing our thinking around it, it wasn’t social skills.

Zach  (00:26:15):

It wasn’t like these kids didn’t have unexpected, challenging, aggressive behaviors. Cause some of them did, it was opportunities. It was opportunities to interact with peers in inclusive settings over time. So it wasn’t just like a one and done it was over time because they needed to get to know each other, see if they wanted to be friends, see if they connected and figure out how to be together. One part of it was that the friendships looked different than friendships among students without disabilities. Like they, you know, when you have, well, when you ha it, it varied when you have significant disabilities, like it just might include additional support. Or the types of things that you do, you know, you know, might be a little different. Um, you know, so for, uh, uh, I, I think that, um, there might be adult involvement in the beginning to kind of set up the play date or the set up the interaction and then kind of fade back, for example, um, you know, I, things, things like that. Um, and yeah, yeah.

Genia  (00:27:31):

Just so basically the research, um, suggested that if you want to be in a relationship with people, you have to spend time with people. 


Zach (00:27:39):

Yeah, yeah. Which we’ve just forgotten when there’s a disability. I mean, so silly, but it, but that’s right. 


Genia (00:27:48):

Yeah. I, um, and we do, so I was recently talking to, um, John O’Brien. I don’t know whether this episode will actually be published before or after the, the episode with John. But John O’Brien, um, who, for those of you don’t know him as a, um, great mind in the disability world. John was talking about social devaluation and the fact that it it’s diabolical and it will rear its ugly head, um, unless there’s vigilance around it. And oftentimes the way it does that is by making things weird. And, um, and this is exactly like we, you know, people instead of having, you know, rich lives with, um, opportunities and roles, which is generally how we meet people and form connections over time, because we’re showing up in the same places with the same people, with the same purpose repetitively over time. Instead of that happening, you’ve got things like community outings in air quotes, where people go and like walk around somewhere, um, where there’s no opportunity to do anything, but have a high five or a fist bump at the best.

Genia  (00:29:08):

Right. Like you might, you might be able to facilitate an introduction, but there’s no opportunity for actual relationship building. 

Zach (00:29:17):

Yeah. And in school that’s brilliant. That’s exactly right. And in school, you know, when kids are not included or not included much, and, and I’ve done some focus groups recently with, uh, students without disabilities. And they’ve said that they, you know, in, in elementary school they said, oh yeah, like I used to see, so, and so, but now in middle school or high school, I don’t see them anymore except the hallways. So like yeah, of course they high five in the hallway cause that’s all they can do in passing. And friendship is so much more than that surface level of greetings or maybe working together in class or helping out in some activity it’s that rich, you know, having the time together to, um, get comfortable and, and tease each other and develop inside jokes. And do an activity together and make mistakes and then tease each other about the mistakes in a loving way, because your friends, like that’s the good stuff. Yeah. 

Genia  (00:30:17):

If friendship is not just about being friendly. 

Zach (00:30:21):

Right. It’s so much more than that. And really, I think that the, um, you know, the, the part of the, um, devaluation and John O’Brien’s words, as you just said, and part of, uh, you know, um, abelism as you will is, is low expectations and kind of. You know, for those who think that, um, you know, someone with significant needs wouldn’t make a wonderful friend or wouldn’t be able to exist or have, uh, an authentic friendship like that. Um, and it, it really is, um, something that we need to, uh, uh, reframe. So the, the, you know, another way of, of saying it is that opportunities are more important to friendship development than the individual’s skills. Um, and, and I’ll say it now. Uh, um, so I don’t forget, but, but, um, you know, part of, you know, facilitating friendships is preparing students sometimes to interact.

Zach  (00:31:31):

Um, and if in social skills can and should be part of that, but social skills in the context of friendship needs to include both members of the friendship. Friendship includes two or more people. So we can’t just continue focusing on social skills for students with disabilities. We have to consider disability awareness, inclusion, awareness, and, and I, and, and, and some of my work, I call it a friendship, Friendship Work, or Friendship Skills by peers without disabilities. Cause you know, someone who doesn’t know Todd, my brother, can’t just drop in and hang out with Todd, um, and expect that it’s going to be comfortable or have success. Like if you go out to eat there, like he needs support to have a meal with you and, and, and you have to know certain things or you’re going to like make them choke. Like there are some very specific things and there are things he can’t eat and he might need to take his meds.

Zach  (00:32:28):

Like there are certain things that have to happen if you’re going to interact as, as friends. So that, so that piece of it, um, you know, is, is really critical. And so opportunities are more important than skills. And then the other part of it in terms of reframing the approach that that reflects is, um, and I’m forgetting her name, but I know one of your prior guests talks about this. Um, and so maybe you’ll remember, we didn’t, um, but rather than focusing just on the student with, with, uh, significant needs, focusing on the full context, uh, for friendship and for meaningful, authentic relationships. And that I think so. Yeah. I started listening to one of hers, uh, podcast and she was talking about that really nice texture relationship. Yeah. Yeah. And in schools that, so friendship work would include not just looking at the student with intellectual disability, but peers, teachers, families, um, and, and, and school structures that may, um, you know, support or not support inclusion, which means time to spend together.

Zach  (00:33:45):

Because like you said, first and foremost, we befriend any of us, but friends, people that we see, there’s a proximity, people that we share interests with and connect with that’s similarity, um, and, and have time to do things with that’s companionship. Those are like the three kind of critical characteristics of friendships for like any of us. 

Genia (00:34:09):

Right. So I really like the, um, I mean, I like all of what you’re saying, but one of the things that I think is really important and is often, um, approached very differently is thinking about how to support, how to support people who don’t have disabilities to be good friends. And so you’ve talked about like disability awareness, inclusion, awareness, um, you know, support to get to know the person and, and understand how to, um, be with them. You know, communication is often, um, or I guess some maybe not often, but certainly sometimes and issue as well, as far as, you know, making sure that people understand how the person communicates and what they mean.

Genia  (00:34:56):

Um, often though what we see is one of two things, either the focus is on, you know, readiness or fixing the person, um, changing the, the person with a disability, as you’ve said. Um, and the other thing that happens when people do try and, um, support the people without disabilities is that it turns into some sort of, um, like pity charity helper role and not a friendship role. So I’m curious when you’re talking and I’m always a bit suspicious when people talk about disability awareness and inclusion awareness. Because it often using John’s words again, gets weird, you know, like it’s, it’s not like if you know, a whole lot about down syndrome, you’re all of a sudden going to be better prepared to be, or more open to a friendship with somebody with down syndrome. It doesn’t make, you know, so I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that. What does that look like to support somebody without a disability to be better equipped, to be in friendship with somebody recognizing all the weirdness stuff that happens when it’s done poorly? 

Zach  (00:36:11):

Yeah, I that’s, that’s, uh, really important and, uh, uh, a great question. The, uh, I think the, the, the way I think about it and kind of the opposite of, of being weird and awkward is, is being real. So if we want authentic, you know, meaningful friendship that, that people with disabilities often have for students with disabilities, like that’s a real relationship and we have to be real from, uh, the beginning. And so I I’ve talked to students in elementary school where there’s often more inclusion. And one of the things, um, I just kind of pulled up a couple of quotes from some of my work with them. Um, one of the things that they, uh, uh, talked about at first, this struck me.

Zach  (00:37:05):

I, I, I, you know, as, as kind of odd, but they said that, uh, or one student ed and others talked about, um, honestly, when, when it’s abilities, when they do stuff, when they act out, I try not to laugh because it’s a little hard not to. And I th I, I, I, it took me a while talking to them about it, to kind of get at that and think it through a bit. And I think if, if there’s more inclusion in elementary school, there’s students without disabilities are spending more time with students with disabilities, they’re seeing full range of behaviors and interactions. And some of the things they talked about was, you know, if someone called out or, or set a swear word in class, or, or, you know, all the way to kind of, you know, more disruptive and whatever behavior. Um, a lot of times teachers, adults who, who know a ton and are trying to do the best for kids, like feel awkward themselves and don’t know how to deal with that and, or might be worried about, I don’t know, liability or confidentiality type things.

Zach  (00:38:11):

And don’t really address the very obvious thing that just happened in class. And that’s part of why I think it feels weird sometimes just from the beginning teachers, aren’t addressing things. Um, and, and, you know, you’re not gonna get into a dissertation about, uh, you know, uh, disruptive behavior and positive behavior supports in a second grade or fourth grade class, but you can talk in an age appropriate way and say, sometimes when he’s tired, this might happen. Or sometimes when she’s frustrated or can’t convey what she wants, because she doesn’t speak and she doesn’t have a communication system yet she shows what she wants, or she shows her frustration. What do you do when you’re frustrated? Like there are very age, appropriate, kid, friendly ways of addressing things that don’t happen. And so that’s what I mean by, uh, a disability awareness, not a separate all these separate programs for disability awareness.

Zach  (00:39:13):

And even for friendship are actually kind of barriers because they’re perpetuating that notion of separate and weird. And it, and so, you know, one thing that happens in elementary school a lot too, is, you know, the, whether it’s the teacher or maybe the parents or caregiver comes in and does a presentation about down syndrome. And like you said, presentation about our family better than presentation about down syndrome and even better. And I would say only appropriate if like every family does it, not just the family of the kid with a disability and for what purpose, like, it, it, it needs to be real. It needs to be baked into existence. Um, cause then I, when I talked to middle schoolers and high schoolers where there’s less inclusion, they don’t have much time to see students with disabilities. And many students, you know, sometimes we forget because they seem like young adults and they seem, you know, with it and tough and independent grow, you know, they don’t know how to interact with kids with disabilities and, and maybe don’t know if they can, because over the years, uh, you know, adults have always been in the way.

Zach (00:40:29):

Um, and so they’re weird. And when student, when middle schoolers are weird, they usually avoid the situation. So that’s a problem, high schoolers, they get past the kind of middle school, social dynamics and development. And then they’re thinking about being a helper, like you said, um, and if they don’t have the opportunity or they don’t have the comfort yet to interact on a real level, they resort to that more formal in authentic helper type of role. Yeah. And we, we, we promote that. We have, oh, you know, we have all these clubs and activities and, and, you know, friendship programs that they can put on their resumes. And they, they get, they know that they’re going to be seen as a good person if they help out. Yeah, it’s awful. And so we kind of reinforced that. And, and, and I think that that kind of, you know, smashing that in being real and, and interacting as, as a, uh, a human being is, is at the core of all of this.

Genia (00:41:40):

If you’re unsure how effective your child’s school is at offering an implementing inclusive education, you can download a free PDF. It’s called How Inclusive Is This School? 14 questions Every Parent Should Ask. You can access it at questions. That’s numeral one, four questions. And if you feel like you need to build your strong foundation in inclusive education, then keep your eyes and ears open because we’ll be opening up the foundations course. The What, Why and How of Inclusive Education on July 22nd, you can’t register yet, but it’s coming.

Genia  (00:42:27):

Yeah. The examples that you’re giving are not helpful examples and helpful examples. Well, all your examples are helpful in this conversation, but I just mean like the things that are not helpful to do versus the things that are helpful to do. Yeah. They both, they, they fall really nicely into that, you know, medical model of disability approach versus a social model of disability. So, you know, the medical model of disability would say, there’s, you know, there’s a, um, a D a difference that is judged to be negative. And, um, you know, we can teach people about it, um, so that they understand it. And, you know, and that’s, that’s that sort of like disability presentation kind of awareness approach. And then there’s the other example you gave was saying, well, when, um, you know, when the student gets frustrated, because she can’t speak, she can’t speak words to you about it.

Genia (00:43:25):

And we haven’t provided her with a communication system yet. And, you know, she gets frustrated. And so this is how she is communicating her frustration. What do you do when you’re frustrated, or how do you communicate frustration? That is very much thinking, like framing somebody in a way, um, and framing the disability and the, and the challenge in a way that really highlights, um, you know, the common human experience. Um, and that’s a very different way of helping people to understand. 

Zach (00:43:57):

I just see that more in schools that, um, are devoted to inclusion that have been set up for inclusion and are inclusive. Like it’s, it’s, it’s baked in there sometimes it’s not. And even in inclusive settings, um, you know, students, aren’t always inherently developing friendships. There can still be some of these barriers there, but, but inclusive ed is, is the first step and as a start.

Zach (00:44:24):

Um, but then thinking about friendship in these ways, uh, is, is absolutely critical. And if we’re thinking about opportunities and thinking about the full context and, and, and not, you know, making it weird and not creating separate programs, um, then the research that we need to draw on and in which I think is really informative. And I’ve, I’ve begun to, you know, these last few years begun to, to use in my work is just how anyone makes friends. And we’ve already talked about some of that, but in terms of the actual social, before we finished, I figured we should talk about like, what people can do to promote. So, um, you know, in terms of how any child or youth makes friends, like the actual social process has three components to it. And I just pulled up my notes here to make sure I get this correct.

Zach  (00:45:27):

Um, the, the, um, there’s the surface structure, which is just like, um, the, the social exchange and interaction, like what kids of a certain culture, a certain age like do together. Um, so I have a, I have a daughter who’s in third grade and, and she loves, uh, choreographing dances with her friends. They make dances outside and then perform them, or, or, you know, things like that, or, or what do you know? And this is as a teacher, this is, or as a parent, this is what I would think, okay. I have a, a 10th grader, what do 10th graders do and like to do, and does my child like this, or what does my child like to do? So the service structure adjusts, like the activities, um, that, that people of that age, culture, gender, or whatever do together. Um, and then what leads to authentic friendship, which in this, which in the psychological research has called deep structure.

Zach (00:46:30):

That’s the reciprocal mutual, uh, friendship. Both people enjoy spending time together. They share, they share secrets with each other. They can, they can get in conflict and resolve it. You know, that that’s the deep, meaningful friendship. The way that you go from the surface structure to the deep structure is called an Effect of Sharing. And that is basically defined, um, as a positive social engagement and synchrony, which means kind of simultaneous reciprocal interaction. And if you think about what you were just saying and what we were just talking about with the usual weird interactions, and the helper interactions that are kind of more vertical than horizontal, like that’s the exact opposite of what leads to friendship like friendships are horizontal relationships. People are see each other in the same way, the same kind of power. It’s not hierarchical. It’s not me helping you poor person with a disability.

Zach  (00:47:41):

It’s, we’re, we are both people who like music and we’re hanging out together because we like music. Um, and so, uh, uh, the, the trick I think is to, you know, the, the, I, I’ve kind of, um, uh, uh, in turn, you know, we’ve talked about reframing how we think about friendship and thinking about opportunities and thinking about the full context, not just the student with a disability and how, when we th the, the framework for facilitating friendship that encompasses that, um, in general would just mean like increasing opportunities, first of all, and improving opportunities so that they have that reciprocal effect of sharing piece in order to get to actual friendship, not weird interaction. Um, so, and that can be individualized. Like I said before, I was kind of joking, but, but like, there’s not one thing to do. I know sometimes families and certainly in the field of special ed, we like interventions, but like, there’s not one thing to do, but this framework, this way of approaching it, I think it’s helpful because it directs us and then we can just individualize it to our student or child and their social context.

Genia  (00:49:10):

So can you repeat again, what effective sharing is?

Zach (00:49:14):

Yeah. Effect of sharing is positive, social engagement, um, and synchrony, which, which is just, just means simultaneous, um, and reciprocal interaction. 

Genia  (00:49:31):

So, and basically people need to, people need to have positive social experiences with each other while they do shared activities. Yes. Is that, am I capturing that?


Zach (00:49:46):

Yes, exactly. And again, I kind of chuckled just because it seems so straightforward in a sense. Um, but again, it’s often forgotten for students with disabilities and sometimes; we set up structures or do things that literally prevents students from being able to do that together. But yeah, doing, doing a shared, and if a young student with autism, for example, is, um, you know, in kind of a parallel play and they’re not yet interacting with peers or motivated by peer interaction. You know, part of what early, um, uh, early educators or early elementary school educators do is scaffolds interactions until the child gets there.

Zach  (00:50:35):

So I’m not saying, you know, and sometimes older kids, you know, don’t necessarily seem like they’re interacting continually. Um, when they’re doing something with someone, you know, depending on your child or student, like, that’s fine, but the idea is to do something together and, um, and, and enjoy it because if you enjoy it, you’re going to want to do it again and again, and then you’re going to get to know each other. And then that’s how a friendship develops. If you are spending time together, because you joined a friendship program, like that’s nice, and, you know, you might have fun and it could be the starting point for more interactions. But oftentimes, like as soon as the program is over, kids are no longer interacting. Um, and you know, it, it, it, there, there are some limits. So we have to go beyond, um, to facilitate like that aspect of sharing. That’s really the, the crux of it. 

Genia  (00:51:42):

It’s interesting too, that one of the things that’s very commonly done, that’s a barrier to that, you know, positive social experiences, positive shared social experiences is the presence of the supporter. Who’s often an adult and, um, not participating in the, in the shared experience, like their role there is very different. And it’s a, and it’s a barrier. And I think about when I was growing up for years and years and years growing up, I played, um, a team game called ringgit, which is a ice play played on the ice. And, you know, we, we had, you know, regular time together because we would have our practices and have our games and have our tournaments. And we required, you know, decreasing over the years as we grew up. But for a lot of those years, we required intensive support from our parents and our coaches in order to be able to pull this off this shared experience.

Genia  (00:52:48):

But there were always like at every single stage that the parents and the coaches involvement was intensive, where it needed to be an absent or withdrawn, you know, the coach wasn’t on the ice with us. The coach was yelling from the, from the side and the parents might’ve been in the stands and yelling. And so like the, but that scaffolding of support, um, was only ever as intense as it needed to be. And by nature of the social, that the, again, it would have been really weird if the parents and the coaches were on the ice at the same time. If they were getting involved in the nitty gritty of that social experience and both of the parents and the coaches understood the game, the team dynamic, the, the social rules, but we violate the social roles so often in the, when we’re providing support to people with disabilities.

Genia  (00:53:51):

Um, so we’re taking away that, you know, that positive social experience because we’re corrupting it essentially, like it’s just not the same thing anymore. 

Zach (00:54:04):

That’s right. I, I think, uh, you know, I think of a couple of, of, uh, uh, phrases, um, um, uh, I’m sure you and your listeners are familiar with. But, but as inclusive as, as possible is as part of this and only is special is necessary. Right. And so it’s that, um, and this is why there’s not just like one friendship intervention, because it’s more, it’s less of a, I mean, there’s some there’s science behind it, but it’s less of a science and more of an art. And, and, and, and, and, and there’s, uh, you know, there’s, there’s a different dynamic for how, as an adult, as a teacher or a parent, you, you do what you, you, you mentioned the coaches and, and your parents were doing kind of paying attention to what’s going on, providing the necessary support and then fading back and letting some things play out and letting kids figure it out together.

Zach (00:55:04):

I mean, cause if share, if kids figure it out together, they’re in, they’re invested and they often do, and they often figure it out better than adults do. Um, you know, and I think so I’ll get to some social examples. Um, but part of, part of this friendship, facilitation, um, I think the in, in kind of reframing it in the way that we’ve been talking about the, the first overall strategy is probably to develop something that, that a colleague, um, um, uh, named Jim Ross, uh, termed as the friendship mindset. Um, and that’s basically thinking about friendship constantly and all that you do as a teacher and parent. Um, and, and, you know, sometimes things have to happen a certain way, um, you know, in the community or in the classroom because of this, but what are the potential social, negative social consequences, and how can we make up for them another way, or does it really have to happen this way?

Zach  (00:56:13):

Because I think it could have better social consequences if we do it this way. And I’m talking about like how, how we teach, how we group, how we model to peers who are always watching us, how we model interacting with students with disabilities. Right. And, you know, I was consulting in a, uh, uh, second grade classroom, I think. And there’s a, um, a girl young girl with a down syndrome. And, um, you know, it was a math class and, and, and there were, there were math centers and all of the kids were playing different math games, um, in the math centers. And then like the typical, and it seems so obvious, but this literally happened while pre pandemic, um, that I was there. But recently, you know, this little girl is off to the corner with her paraprofessional and the special ed teacher who were both fantastic playing like adapted versions of the same game.

Zach  (00:57:15):

And, and I said to them like, and they just didn’t see it, like, let’s do this. And, you know, with her peers over here, like, why are you over here in this, your special corner doing this separate thing, because what are the peers thinking? How do the peers view her? Probably not as a potential friend, cause she’s not doing the same things as them. She always has one or maybe two adults with her. And maybe, maybe I can’t interact with her because no one ever lets me or no one ever like tells me I can. And, and so like, you know, another high school student who, um, in, in, uh, uh, with autism in a math class, I saw. He actually was on the honor roll. But in this one math class, I don’t think anyone would know because the teacher did rapid fire, quick questions.

Zach  (00:58:08):

Um, he wasn’t prepared ahead of time or the teacher didn’t slow down and, and, you know, give him the wait time to answer or let him know, you know, w when she was going to call on him type thing, she just did quick questions. And so all of his classmates were involved. He wasn’t, and they just saw him sitting there, kind of flapping his arms a little and doing these movements. And it was never explained. So what are they thinking? Are they thinking of him as a potential friend? Do they have the opportunity to do stuff in class together with him? Can they, when the teacher’s not looking whispered to him about something, not class-related will know, cause he always has his paraprofessional next to him. So what are the social consequences of some of those academic decisions are kids allowed to walk in the hall?

Zach  (00:58:53):

Sometimes it might be too, you know, sensory overwhelming and, but is it really, or are there different? And then if it is, well, how can we make up for it? And, and, but is it really, so those, those are some examples, I think with decisions that are made in schools that have social consequences and part of what should be rethought. And if we’re thinking with a friendship mindset and thinking not just about the student’s skills, but thinking about increasing the quantity of opportunities and improving the quality of those opportunities. 

Genia (00:59:32):

Yeah. Yeah. I, I love that. I, you know, that I wish there was a magic bullet for friendship. I think many of us do. Um, and there’s not, and that’s unfortunate, but it’s also reassuring that what the science, I, I usually, when I’m talking about friendships or relationships, what I say is it’s 20% science and 80% magic.

Genia  (00:59:59):

Yeah, yeah, yeah. You can’t really do anything about the magic piece. That’s, you know, that’s just magical when it happens and, and you can’t force the magic, but the 20% science piece, all of what you’re saying is actually not complicated. It won’t, it doesn’t guarantee friendship. Right. But what we can do to create the possibility for it is really not that complicated or frankly hard to do. And most of it has to do with just stopping the weirdness. Yeah. Like we gotta to get out of the way and doing what works in general. 

Zach (01:00:35):

Right. When we know we know the framework, we know, you know, how all people, uh, make friends and that’s what should be applied to students with disabilities, not this readiness model of just social skills, not the weirdness of separate programs. Um, and so rather than thinking, so what are some of the strategies, I mean, rather than creating a separate program, and I’m sure this has come up in many different ways in, in, in, um, prior podcasts. But like be inclusive, like think about what’s out there and what, um, you know, and, and, and, and, um, whose, who has similar interests to so-and-so right.

Zach  (01:01:18):

What clubs exist, um, rather than creating a friendship club, one of the best in, in multiple schools now, and, and many situations where students did have friends, um, rather than having a friendship program or club that was created separately for kids with disabilities. They joined existing clubs. And, and there’s, I’m, I’m starting to see a pattern now, right. But I’m starting to see a pattern where it’s, uh, like, um, diversity club and they’re at whatever the equity diversity inclusive club is because disability should be part of that. First of all, that broader discussion about equity and diversity. Um, and the kids who are interested in equity and diversity are likely going to be like cool with different and cool generally. Uh, and, and, you know, um, but really it’s, whatever the share, whatever the interest is, figure out a way to interact over time. Um, and, and I, I think that we, like you said, it’s not groundbreaking.

Zach  (01:02:36):

We know the framework, we know what should happen. And then it’s having the high expectations and the friendship mindset to actually do it, and then just individualizing it for your child or student and their setting. Um, you know, I think, again, this is not groundbreaking at all, but based because shared interest and proximity, as we talked about, it’s how everyone makes friends and doing things together, companionship. Like incorporating the student’s strengths and interests. That’s inclusion, that’s good teaching, but like, are people doing it and doing it in enough? I think we’d probably see more friendships if they weren’t. So I think people need to revisit that and really proactively, purposely commit to it. Um, and it works into it more. Yeah. Yeah. Um, you know, school, there’s not a lot of downtime for kids. It’s very much adult students structured and, uh, or, or structured by adults.

Zach  (01:03:41):

So what are the social times part of, part of the facilitation is what are the social times in the school day? Um, friendship, one of the components the friendship is called is, is, is that, um, uh, friendship transcends context. Which basically means that if you’re really friends, sometimes we have context, specific friends, right? Like I, I have friends on the soccer team. I used to play the indoor soccer team I used to play on before I dislocated my knee. Uh, I, some friends were just on that soccer team. I didn’t see them anywhere else. A couple, I hung out with outside of the soccer team and we started doing things and another context, and they were my closer friends. So if you transcend context, if you’re friends in multiple places, um, that’s the deeper, more authentic friendship. And for kids with disabilities, it needs to happen outside of school because in school it’s not, you know, it’s probably more vertical than horizontal to use that language.

Zach  (01:04:49):

Um, so what do kids do a lot of times, um, you know, if you’re younger, your parents are involved in setting up play dates and it’s probably outdoor activities and sports, maybe getting ice cream on a hot day, or just playing in the yard or going to a park. Um, as kids get older, they’re busy and scheduled and they ha so being part of teams or clubs that exist as a way to cause you to, to make friends. Cause you’re, you make friends with those people that you see on those, um, clubs and teams. But outside of that, students, older students are probably just texting each other and kinda hanging out. And this is what they told me there it’s spontaneous. So for students with disabilities, are they involved in that? Do they have a way to get in touch? And if not, some of the friendship awareness or friendship skills for kids without disabilities is to be explicitly told, like, so-and-so, doesn’t have a phone or won’t initiate to hang out.

Zach  (01:06:00):

Like, like you guys always do quickly and spontaneously when, you know, and, and, and so like, I explicitly telling peers like you, sometimes they pick it up on their own. I’ve, I’ve I’ve, um, but explicitly telling peers like you, if you want to hang out with her, you need to initiate it. And please remember to initiate it, not in a begging pity way, but like, just like, she’s not going to do it. So you need to, so remember to text her, I’ve had, I’ve known like friendships where it sounds kind of bad that a high, like a senior in high school was calling up someone’s parent. Um, but they were just initiating because the student with a disability couldn’t and then, you know, they would, they, they were hanging out reciprocally and authentically. It wasn’t kind of that pity thing at all. Um, so, you know, there, there are lots of obvious individualized strategies like that within this framework, when you kind of purposely commit to, to thinking about it this way and doing it.

Genia  (01:07:13):

Yeah. I think that, yeah, I think that’s really, really helpful. And, you know, I think part of the, for parents and maybe for educators as well, I’m not sure. Um, I think it’s sometimes those that ask, you know, is, is hard, you know, in, in July, um, for Inclusion Academy, which is our monthly membership, we’ve got, um, a workshop specifically on this topic of, of the ask, you know, how to extend invitations, how to have those transparent conversations, how to be that facilitator of relationship and, you know, the, the fear of one rejection and two being weird yourself, um, is really intimidating. So I think it can be hard to do. 

Zach (01:08:10):

I agree. I, and I think there’s, I, I I’ve learned this from, uh, wonderful, committed parent leaders, um, who had, you know, successes and challenges around friendship. But one thing they said is that it involves, um, taking risks.

Zach  (01:08:33):

Um, you know, and if, if there’s a team involved, who’s most comfortable with the ask or, you know, who’s most comfortable, um, and best at, uh, uh, modeling or pulling in kids that that need to be pulled in and then fading back. Um, as the adults, I was, I was good at that as a teacher, some teachers are not good at that. Um, for parents that said it’s slightly different, I, I completely, uh, understand. Um, and I, I think part of what, you know, I think teachers can and should do more of this to, um, support families. So it’s not all on families having to do that ask, um, I, I, you know, I, I don’t know what else you’re going to teach in your, uh, your workshop around friendship. 

Genia (01:09:39):

I’m not going to teach it because I’m terrible. Like I’m, you know, yeah. I’m, I shouldn’t say I’m terrible at it.

Genia  (01:09:48):

I feel all the social anxiety and worry and fear of a parent. And, um, I was kind of smirking there because I was just thinking like, yes, it’s different for parents. And I’m not saying that teachers are always super cool, but I’m struck by the number of times my kids remind me how not cool I am. And, right, right. And so w and we’ve been talking about, we’ve been talking about not how, sorry we’ve been talking about how often things get made weird when it comes to, um, people with disabilities. And yet in this instance, when we’re talking about that, ask that invitation, that communication it’s sort of defacto weird and uncool to have your parents doing it. 

Zach (01:10:37):

True. I, I, I, a couple of quick strategies, I don’t know our timing. I don’t know if we’re getting there.

Genia  (01:10:45):

 I’ve definitely, I’ve definitely kept you too long already, but, um, but I appreciate your time. So keep going. 

Zach (01:10:52):

Yeah, no, I I’d love it. And there, there’s so much, so, okay. What was I thinking? So, um, 

Genia  (01:10:57):

You’re going to teach me how to not be uncool. 

Zach (01:11:00):

Yeah. Well, I’m getting, I’m starting to get those looks from my nine-year-old daughter. So I thought I was cool too, but apparently I’m not. Uh, so there are a couple of things that, that get at this one in terms of lasting, um, relationships and, and, you know, authentic friendship. And, and you mentioned earlier, like I, especially in the adult world, um, you know, it’s these outings and you have groups of people with disabilities and just in the community cause so they can meet that goal, but it’s not going to lead to anything. And it’s weird. Right. So rather than, you know, thinking about it in terms of like activities in the community, like the goal really should be like interest based membership and belonging.

Zach  (01:11:51):

Right. And so that’s more likely when you can kind of, and it happens in different ways, like, you know, develop kind of socially network, or maybe there’s some connection to be pulled into a group rather than asking to join from the outside. So being pulled in is better for friendship, feels better for parents is not weird, does not, you know, force you to kind of, um, you know, confront your nerves about doing the ask. So, so there, there might be some connections and, you know, and talking to teachers about how to do that. But, and I mentioned earlier, like who’s best at it on the team. So there’s obviously the school team, but I think another strategy is, um, you know, enlisting a theme that could include school personnel should include family, but like peers and, and, and, um, you know, kind of, uh, uh, uh, uh, um, a circle of support and, and, and the circle of support.

Zach  (01:13:06):

Um, a lot of people who have been successful do this generally around inclusion in school and community, but it’s especially useful for friendship and the people who are on the circle of support are not meant to be friends. We’re not saying, will you be Todd’s friend it’s come helped me. Uh, however, all parent who is apparently not cool anymore, figure out what’s cool for third graders or how, what club Todd who’s in ninth grade should, should join, or what do people do on the weekends? Cause I don’t know. And so we’re enlisting this group, maybe teachers, therapists [inaudible], definitely some peers or neighborhood buddies or, or whatever, and, and asking them those types of things like what should be on her communication device. What, how do you guys talk about this? Because if adults do it, it’s usually too formal. It doesn’t include the latest video game.

Genia  (01:14:07):

No, even the word cool anymore. 

Zach  (01:14:13):

Right. That’s true. Um, and, and that’s the problem with social skills too. Social skills are usually taught in, in very kind of formal ways. And for someone might be taught to join a group by saying, excuse me, may I, you know, I I’d like to play too, or is it my turn now, when in reality it’s so much quicker and fluid and kids kind of do it with a quick, can I jump in and jump in? And so student, like I should’ve said this earlier, when we were talking about social skills, if, if it’s needed, if it’s part of special ed, but the goal of social skills should always be in the umbrella of friendship should always be social competence, which is actually, um, you know, performing skills or abbreviated versions of skills that are going to be successful in the natural setting in the real world.

Zach  (01:15:09):

So I don’t often see us adults teaching kids to be, to get to social competence and some do. Um, but that, that could be part of this too. Um, so that 

Genia  (01:14:07):

It’s like judicious cussing. Right, right. Depending on the age of the, the age of the person, right. Like that’s, that would be social competence. I think so. 

Zach  (01:15:33):

And if adults are always right there, it’s not going to happen, but yeah. That’s why the fading back and yeah, I mean, we have to, we have to recognize these things as adults and, uh, you know, the circle of support, uh, idea is really useful, um, to figure out what, you know, some of those details. So I, I, I would recommend that that that’s happened, um, or been part of, you know, lots of successful friendships. And, and I think I said it explicitly, or, or maybe you rephrase that explicitly, but in successful friendships, I mean, adult support is there to kind of teach peers, these things, um, to, to set up, uh, um, opportunities to maybe scaffold opportunities.

Zach  (01:16:24):

So they’re more successful than they have been. Um, and then fading back though to let it happen. So that’s the art and kind of magic of it. Um, and I think about, you know, I remember talking to a, well, actually I heard a father of a young child with autism, um, presents and he was talking about being at the park. And his kid was playing in the sandbox with, uh, with, uh, uh, train. He loved trains. Um, and another little boy at the park similar age came over and said, hi, and his son didn’t say hi, and didn’t look over. Um, and then picked up, there was another truck leftover in the, in the sandbox and he picked a truck and he was making sounds with it and, and trying to like race. I think race has that his sons train and his son, you know, didn’t look and kept doing what he was doing.

Zach (01:17:21):

And, and, and, and this father was presenting and just saying, sharing his inner dialogue of, you know, recognizing this and just thinking to himself, like, please, like please like respond like, and, and, and he not in a bad way, because you know, that he, he, um, you know, was, was upset with his son, but just in terms of desire for connection, because he knew he was, he knew that one more attempt by the peer and then the peer was probably going to leave. And that’s what he did. The pier tried to crash the train. And even that didn’t get a response from his son and then the peer just left to go and play. And sometimes, um, that opportunity, that window is really quick and can be fleeting. Um, I remember being at a school and there was a boy, it was a second grade class and a boy with autism who loved lightning McQueen and loved math.

Zach  (01:18:27):

And at recess he’d get a stopwatch. And he would time himself as lightning McQueen, running laps around the playground, like the car, you know, thinking he was racing in the car. Um, and, and similar type situation happened where a girl who I, it turns out, knew him from the neighborhood. She put out her hands to give him a high five as he came around. And I was watching this just hoping he would give her a high five. And he kept running by head down, no high five, another lap, same thing. Um, third lap, she kind of was watching him. And then, um, one of another girlfriend said something and she turned and walked away. And that was it. And so part of what teachers and parents can do is teach peers to maybe wait a little longer, to teach the student with the disability, to try, you know, to get there, to, to respond.

Zach  (01:19:30):

So those are some of the social skills that, that, that should be taught, but, but in that natural setting, and as social competence says, as you said, like what, and, and those are things that teachers and parents, when they see them, part of the friendship, facilitation is trying to set kids up ahead of time to be more successful. So those missed opportunities are taken advantage of. Um, but also in the moment when you notice something like that, like jump in and do what’s necessary in that situation, ask her to wait a third time and then go run with him and say, okay, that re you know, Bianca is over there and we’re going to give her a high five, or at least wave to her if, uh, you know, like, so I dunno, there’s that there’s, that those are different specific examples of individualized. Yeah.

Genia  (01:20:25):

Yeah. And very different from that social skills readiness. It’s so very different, right. That reframe of social competence and what that looks like in different contexts is really helpful. Um, Zach, I’m really conscious of how much of your time I’ve taken. I’ve really, really enjoyed our conversation. Um, if people wanted to learn more about your research or connect with you, where would people find you and your work? 

Zach (01:20:56):

Um, they can find me, uh, at, um, uh, Boston University, uh, BU Gould, Google. My name B N BU Wheelock, I think is probably the easiest thing. Um, I have a, a webpage on our, uh, schools, uh, website, um, that lists lots of my work. And, um, my email is actually, I’m, I’m comfortable sharing it. My email is really easy. Um, it’s my initials, [email protected]. Um, Z S as in Sam or Steven is my middle name, uh, [email protected].

Zach  (01:21:41):

And I’m, I’m, I’d love to hear from folks I’d love, uh, problem solving around friendship and, and thinking about specific strategies in this, uh, in this framework. Um, you know, and I don’t think we said this. Can I end on a couple of quick thoughts? Um, uh, people, you know, the, the, I think there’s inherent value. If anyone’s not convinced people with friends are happier, safer and healthier, um, with, and without disabilities that holds true. Um, and friendships bring benefits themselves self-worth and confidence. They protect from bullying, victimization, and perpetration, and also they’re the vehicles for social, emotional, and behavioral and academic gains. Like the, the, the friendship itself is, is kind of the, the, the social vehicle for lots of learning and growth. So it’s so important and specific to students with IDD, um, you know, students with friends have better academic, um, obviously in social, uh, outcomes in school and better post-school outcomes along, especially if it’s along with, um, you know, inclusive ed.

Zach  (01:22:57):

So, so there are so many, so many reasons, and, and I don’t want to end on a, on a, on a bummer, cause those are all the things, but, but it is something that we siblings and parents and family members, you know, worry about as, as an adult. Um, you know, my, my brother had a full life because my mom and stepdad made sure he had a full life and in the family, um, we made sure of that, but he did interact prominently with us in the family. Um, and I think, uh, you know, friends in school, more inclusion, more friends, uh, likelihood of some of those lasting as, as, uh, adults, um, more community inclusion, not just these outings that are weird as adults will lead to actual social connections and relationships and friendships. And, uh, you know, it’s, it’s really, really, uh, critical because it is, um, you know, I think, I think, uh, disappointing for him.

Zach  (01:24:02):

Um, he, he, he was, didn’t communicate with a comprehensive system or device, but I knew, I knew it was disappointing for him. And certainly as his brother, um, it was really disappointing. Um, you know, not just in terms of his quality of life, but I think of like way too many people missed out on the privilege of getting to know him and hanging out as friends. And that’s what this is all about. 

Genia (01:24:29):

So, yeah. Thanks for that Zach. Sure. Very much. I hope this is the first of many conversations..

Zach  (01:24:36):

Likewise, likewise, this is really fun. I probably have other stuff I should get back to, but, uh, I wish we could do this all day. 

Genia (01:24:43):

Yeah, me too. Me too. Thank you so so much. 

Zach  (01:24:45):

All right. Thank you.

Speaker 1 (01:24:52):

Thank you so much for joining Genia on the podcast. We hope you enjoyed today’s episode. See you next time.


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Special thanks to Zach Rossetti for joining me this week. Until next time!

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Genia Stephen
Genia Stephen

Sister, mother, midwife, writer, speaker and perpetually curious. Dedicated to bringing you the voices, ideas and conversations of world class mentors and thought leaders in the field of disability.