As a parent, it's normal to wonder if it would help them to be around other kids with ADHD. It's true for any parent who has a learning disabled child. However, depending on your reason, it may not be the magical cure you wish it to be.
Alike or Different?
While all parents worry about their children, for a parent of a child with ADHD those concerns can stem from areas other parents take for granted. Whereas a typical parent sends their child off to school without thinking about issues of socialization and friendship, they are front and center in the anxiety when you parent a child with ADHD. You may wonder if they are the outcast in their class, or if they will make friends on the playground. You may even be wondering if it is important for your child needs to be around other kids with ADHD or if they are better off in a general mixed population. Unfortunately, the answer isn't easy, or straightforward.
ADHD and Social Cues
It's natural to wonder if your child's life would be made easier if they were around other kids with ADHD. After all, if they were around other kids with ADHD the symptoms that make them unique would stand out as much, right? It would just be a big room of kids who all have similar issues. Would they have an easier time getting along with other children who struggle with similar issues? The answer, maybe - but maybe not.
Think about all the subtle cues that go on in a relationship with your friends. If you were annoyed, how would they know? You would put out social cues that your friends would pick up and understand exactly how you were feeling. They might notice a change in your tone of voice or the tense way you were tapping a pencil on the tap. However, children with ADHD often by the nature of their brains don't pick up on those social cues. When they don't, misunderstandings, arguments, and all sorts of related incidents can happen.
Children with ADHD, like other children with learning disabilities, often experience social issues. It's completely normal. Education specialist Richard Lavoie in his book It's So Much Work to Be Your Friend: Helping the Child with Learning Disabilities Find Social Success explains that children with learning disabilities like ADHD struggle socially yes, but in predictable ways. That is because kids with ADHD and other learning disabilities can struggle to pick up on those social cues as parents we take for granted. They struggle to navigate the line between acceptable and unacceptable behaviors in social situations like the playground or the cafeteria. Their ADHD interferes with their ability to forecast out what will happen if they say 'x' or do 'y' in any given social encounter. The social reality for kids with ADHD is whether your child is surrounded by children with ADHD or not, they will face the same challenges. Deliberately putting them around children with ADHD isn't going to improve that issue.
Coaching Friendships in Kids with ADHD
So the reality is that if you want your child to build relationships and friendships with other children, it isn't really necessary that they are surrounded by other children with ADHD. It is more important that they spend time with other children, especially those with similar interests. For anyone, the basis of our friendships and relationships are often common interests and experiences. Think of your own life for a moment. How did you form friendships at school? It might have been kids you went to church with, or played on the same basketball team with, or had the same interests as you. Just because your child has ADHD, doesn't mean their relationships start out any differently. They don't necessarily want to be friends or get to know someone just because they have ADHD. Instead, they probably want to spend time with children who have the same interests as them whether it is dance or Dungeons and Dragons.
Once they have found those children with like interests, you can coach them through how to communicate and develop those interpersonal skills. Before they get together with their peers, you can work with them on how to interact. With common interests at the center of the children's time together, you can work with them on other skills. For example, before they go you can practice with them how to introduce themselves to someone new or even just how to have a conversation. They can practice a specific skill each time they get together with their peers in the context of something they love.
In fact, if there are children in the group who don't have ADHD all the better. Those children may have stronger interpersonal skills and can model for your child how to interact. Because they have better social cues, they may even be more patient in talking, working, or even playing with your child because they can empathize. They can better tune into the feelings of others within the group, and help mediate communication as needed.
Are Friendship Groups a Viable Option?
If your child has significant social struggles, you may elect to put them in what is known as social or friendship groups. Unlike a typical playgroup, friendship groups are designed to teach children all the skills they need to interact with others and develop friendships under the guidance of a qualified therapist or social worker. In that way it works a lot like behavior therapy would for any child with ADHD, but in a small group setting.
Within the group, using activities such as games or role-playing, the therapist works with small groups of students on social skills. It is essentially a directed playgroup, where children come together and do play-oriented activities such as games. However, the purpose of the games, while they are intended to be fun, is more about teaching them how to play appropriately together following social guidelines and recognizing social cues. Sometimes these groups operate within schools and can become part of your child's 504 or IEP. Other times these groups are formed outside of school by therapists.
Sometimes children will naturally form friendships with others in the group, and some therapists even encourage the children who participate to get together socially outside the boundaries of the friendship group. However, the real purpose is to give children with ADHD the skills they need to form friendships at school, and within any activity, they are interested in.
Is It Important for My Child to Socialize With Other Kids with ADHD?
So does a child with ADHD benefit from being around other kids with ADHD? It all depends on the child. If your child is struggling with their ADHD symptoms, especially social skills, it might be beneficial for them to be around other kids with ADHD in the context of a friendship circle that is supervised by a trained therapist or guidance counselor. However, that is a decision you want to make with your child's doctor or therapist. What is more important perhaps is that they are around other children. Many kids with ADHD struggle socially, and being around other children - especially those who share their interests - gives them opportunities to practice social skills and build those friendships as parents we want them to have.