A couple of years ago I was looking for resources to help typically developing kids understand and interact with peers who have autism. Somewhere amidst an online search I stumbled onto Good Friend Inc. Through the website, I contacted the company and received 2-Disc set of peer sensitivity films. I was anxious to preview the DVDs to see if they could be helpful to a church audience. So I popped in the videos (one for elementary and another for middle school-aged kids), and invited my son, who was age six at the time, to watch along side of me.
I was a little surprised how uncharacteristically quiet my son was through both 16-minute films, including the one for middle schoolers. As soon as the videos were complete, my young son wanted process aloud the stories shared on the DVDs. It was evident that my little guy had taken in more than I expected. And at one point he commented:
“Mom, I think I understand what you do now…you are writing to help churches understand kids just like the ones we heard about on the video.”
Because my family does often make sacrifices for my writing and all that goes along with it, it was great to have my son “get it”. I loved that he caught my mission and saw the value in my work. But it wasn’t until more recently that I realized just how profoundly the two films had impacted my son.
Fast-forward two years and now my son is eight years old.
Through a series of conversations, I figured out there was a new child participating in one of his after school activities. My son was often coming home from this activity frustrated. More than once he replayed dialogue where there were perceived unfair, and at times exasperating, interactions. As I asked questions about the situation I secretly wondered if there was more to the story than my son was picking up on. Perhaps the new friend had a unique way of processing information….maybe he was struggling with social interaction…and possibly the frequency of changes during the activity were uncomfortable for the fellow participant.
One day when my son was at the end of his rope with this friend, I began asking questions to prompt him to think outside the box. He played along, relaying what was happening before, during, and after the frustrating interactions. Suddenly, my son became quiet. For a moment he looked in another direction and then the furrowed brow over his eyes released.
“Mom, do you remember those videos we watched a long time ago?”
(I nodded “yes” immediately remembering the Good Friend films)
“Well, maybe my friend is like one of the kids who we on the DVDs. I bet it isn’t always easy for him.”
At that moment, everything changed for my son, it was as if 100 light bulbs turned on. A cloud of frustration was replaced by understanding and empathy.
Together we talked about how we can’t know for sure or assume that this friend has a learning difference*. But my son could be sensitive to possibility his peer might be uncomfortable with change and may not intuitively know how to play with someone he actually wants to be friends with.
In the days that followed, my son viewed his peer through a different lens. He came home with new stories about his friend. But rather than conveying an escalating sense of frustration, he just wanted to dialogue about all he was processing during the interactions. Fortunately, it wasn’t long before the two boys found a common interest during their time together. And their mutual interest has led to a friendship that occasionally extends beyond the time and location of the original extracurricular activity.
Needless to say, I think the Good Friend Forever DVDs belong on the shelf of every children’s or student ministry leader. I recommend using the films as a key part of special needs ministry volunteer and buddy training events. While the DVDs are ideal to show to teen buddies and peer-helpers, I think adults would benefit from their content as well. I appreciated the everyday language used to explain sensory needs and unexpected behaviors that are common among kids with many special needs (not just autism). Ministry leaders could also make the DVDs available to mission-minded families in their church, encouraging them to use the short films as discussion starters inside their home, much like I did with my son.
The DVDs could also be used in the typical ministry setting for all children and/or teens. While the films were developed to show in secular schools, discussion questions with a Biblical tie-in can be easily added by a group facilitator. (When you watch the DVDs you will not be surprised to know that Good Friend Inc.’s founders are passionate believers.) The DVDs could used as introductory illustrations when covering Bible truths such as:
- Accepting others as God made them
- Treating others as you want to be treated
- Intentionally including others, being the light of Christ
- Not judging others
- Standing up for peers who are being bullied
To learn more or purchase the DVDs, see www.GoodFriendInc.com
For an excellent article, checkout Tips for Interacting with Individuals with Autism
*In my house, we refer to many special needs as “learning differences”. I like to use this term because the word difference is less stigmatizing than the word disability. Every child can relate to the idea of having some attribute or need that makes them different from their peers. My son and I often talk about the fact he processes new information through his listening skills (auditory learner), which is different than most of his peers who process new information by seeing pictures (visual learners). When my son was younger, we talked about differences such as needing glasses, not being able to eat ice cream (lactose intolerant), or only being able to eat gluten free cupcakes (Celiac disease runs in my family). Obviously some differences are more common and less inconvenient than others, but the important thing was to help my son develop a God-view of our differences. (In God’s economy, the person with a cognitive or physical disability has the same treasured worth as the person with a food allergy.) ~ Amy Fenton Lee