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17th April 2015

Finding friends

Group of international multiracial friends sitting at the beachFor people with learning disabilities, building a social circle can be tricky.

When we were kids back in the olden days, my mother would shove us out the door with instructions to “go and play” with other kids in the neighbourhood. The awkward social minefield she was urging us into seemed totally lost on her. If only it was as simple as “go play”!

Attending events that bring us into contact with potentially like-minded people can lead to us forming new friendships. Joining a book club, exercise class or even regularly using the same pub or café will provide opportunities to link with familiar others. Church groups or clubs make things easier perhaps, having as their purpose the need to affiliate.

Taking the first step

Yet even for the highly confident, making new friends can be a challenging prospect. For people who have limited experience or vocabulary and lack self-confidence, the route to developing a circle of friends is even harder. But for people who are shy or unsophisticated at small talk, how to take the first step?

These days we are spared the excruciating business of sidling up and engaging strangers in conversation through the magic that is social media. This method assures us a degree of protection from faux-pas and the risk of humiliation. And there’s always the option to ‘unfriend’ without risk of a fight.

Intellectual disability and use of social media

But how many people with intellectual disability actually use social media regularly? A study published last year questioned 58 people about their experience of social media use, and gives some insight into how this might be improved to help others access it.

The study found that those surveyed used mainly Facebook, and for the same things that the rest of us tend to – connecting with existing friends and keeping in touch with family. There was less use of the service to make new connections or join groups. Those questioned also cited access difficulties due to problems with literacy and with complex privacy settings. The study concluded that to make social media really accessible, more would need to be done to address simplicity of access, alternative formats to text and fewer changes to the on- screen presentation. It was not a groundbreaking study, with a very small sample and some very leading questions, but the literature review was quite interesting on the subject of social networks generally.

Smaller social circles

This review found that other research had noted the differences between those with learning disability and those with physical disability in terms of the size of their social circles. Those with learning disability, although participating in more groups and activities, had fewer social contacts. They relied more on their carers and families for socialising, whereas those with physical, but no intellectual disability had larger circles of independent friends.

Further reviewed research found that people with learning disabilities generally were less likely to have peer friendships away from school or work. It was found that even in supported accommodation, people did not have large social circles and tended only to mix with others with similar disabilities and needs. So much for the liberating benefits of care in the community!

Helping your service users develop relationships

In reality, whilst all of us find going out and seeking social contact a bit of a challenge, we would all prefer that to having people choose our mates for us. But, for the people we support who may not be motivated or confident in making friends, we could have a responsibility to assist them in developing relationships.

Perhaps it’s time to consider extending the social boundaries your service users have, and help them become more people-confident, in a virtual, or actual, sense.

*All information is correct at the time of publishing. Use of this material is subject to your acceptance of our terms and conditions.

Ginny Tyler

Learning Disabilities Specialist

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