It took Gabie Jo Reese a while to agree to hug her friend Bella Watkins. But 6-year-old Bella understood the 7-year-old's reluctance to have physical contact.
It took Gabie Jo Reese a while to agree to hug her friend Bella Watkins. But 6-year-old Bella understood the 7-year-old's reluctance to have physical contact. From the start of the girls' friendship, Gabie's mom always has explained "some of Gabie's quirkiness" to Bella. "The key to having typical friends is being perfectly honest," said Michelle Reese of Hilliard. "Gabie is autistic and these are her characteristics. This is how we deal with it." The friendship between Bella, a typical kindergartener, and Gabie has helped both girls, their mothers agreed. "Bella definitely has (benefitted)," said her mother, Jennifer Watkins of Hilliard. "They get along really well. Bella has learned to understand how to interact with her." These days the girls regularly hug, share inside jokes and enjoy crafting together. Friendships between typical children and their peers with special needs can have a positive impact on both kids, said Dr. Patricia Nash, a pediatric expert in development and behavior at Nationwide Children's Hospital. "A child with special needs would learn a lot about social skills and interactive play," Nash said. "A typical child would learn compassion and empathy. They would learn to be caring towards other people." Parents of typical children can help their children forge friendships with their special needs classmates by reaching out to the other child's parents, said Barb Yavorcik, executive director of the Autism Society of Ohio. She recommends calling the other family and letting them know you'd like to arrange a play date. A good first step might be suggesting that the two families plan an outing together, she said. "It's very isolating having a child with a disability," Yavorcik said. "Having someone reach out really means a lot. It really can be a lot." When you are trying to arrange a play date, it's OK to ask questions in a respectful way, Nash said. Make it clear that you are asking because you want to make sure the other child is safe and comfortable while he or she is with you, she said. Nash also suggested asking about safety precautions, food allergies and "how close of an eye do you need to keep on the child." Reese prefers to accompany Gabie to Bella's house so she can be nearby for the girls. She said has enjoyed watching their friendship unfold. "(Gabie) has blossomed," her mother said. "It's really good for her."