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Disabled children need friends too

Children with severe disabilities have the same ability to comprehend others’ perspectives as healthy children. But to be able to practice and develop their social skills, they need devices that make it easier for them.

The ability to comprehend the worlds of others’ ideas as well as one’s own is a prerequisite for social fellowship, and for making friends. Can children who lack ordinary speech develop this ability? Annette Sundqvist has investigated this in her dissertation on disability studies, with the help of a group of 14 severely physically disabled children. They communicate with the help of Bliss, a symbolic language where the children ‘speak’ through pointing out various figures.

The children’s ability to empathise was tested through having them respond to questions like “How do you think this child feels?” when they hear a story or see a picture. Their non-verbal ability was also tested. They were compared with children who had developed normally, and with children who have learning disabilities.

These children’s social skills were on a level with the children who developed normally. The disability in and of itself was no obstacle for being able to understand how others think. On the other hand, social skills co-varied with the non-verbal abilities.

“These children are not divergent where social skills are concerned; they have the same need for friends as all children,” Sundqvist says. The question is what opportunities they have to make friends.

She went further and charted the children’s social activities and networks. She found that the children can be independent and take the initiative in social contacts, but they do not often get the chance. Communicating with Bliss is very time-consuming and it is an issue of the other child and the child’s assistant having patience and not taking the conversation over completely.

The children’s social network consists primarily of adults who are paid to be with the children. In school, regardless of the type of school, they have decent contact with several classmates. But they don’t have any close friends.

“It’s so sad. These children have the same social needs as other children. The obstacle isn’t their mental skills; it’s of a purely technical type,” Sundqvist says.

She introduced an e-mail program where the children can write with Bliss, and they exchanged e-mail addresses with each other. The programme also functions so that a non-Bliss user can get messages in clear text. She was able to establish that the children who wrote the majority of original letters were those who ended up highest in the tests of social skills.

Her conclusion is that disabled children with alternative communications methods have the same social needs as all children, and that they need to have access to devices that in fact already exist.

Sundqvist defended her thesis on October 15th. The dissertation is titled “Knowing me, knowing you. Mentalization abilities of children who use augmentative and alternative communication”.

Annette Sundqvist can be reached on +46 736-631864, +46 13-282726, and via e-mail at anett.sundqvist@liu.se

Therese Winder 2010-11-15

Page manager: therese.winder@liu.se
Last updated: 2010-11-15