Children with intellectual disabilities (ID) often encounter various difficulties during their lives, forced to overcome the limitations imposed by the specificity of their condition. However, considering the problems related to physical activity, communication, and abstract thinking, young people with special needs often experience trouble when attempting to establish relationships with their peers (Guralnick, 2017). Thus, of special concern are the challenges in social skills and friendship formation, which significantly decrease the children’s well-being. This essay focuses on the complications encountered by children with intellectual disabilities, centering on the areas of social skills and friendship formation, as well as suggesting prominent resolve strategies according to evidence-based practices.
Primary Aspects of Intellectual Disability Conditions in Children
The concept of intellectual disability encompasses a range of disorders that impede the normal development and functioning of young people’s cognitive capabilities. Intellectual disability is defined as a condition that imposes significant limitations on the children’s intellectual, conceptual, social, and practical skills, as well as restricts the efficiency of adaptive behavior (Williams et al., 2020). Considering that ID hinders the normal advancement of intellectual capabilities, it can severely impact the welfare of affected children.
Recent scientific findings direct considerable attention to the challenges experienced by children with ID. According to contemporary research, physical, cognitive, and social performance are the most prominent areas that create difficulties for special-needs children (Gül, 2016). Delayed development of motor functions and complications related to sensory skills frequently manifest among young people with various ID levels, preventing them from successfully conducting physical movements (Westendorp et al., 2011). These symptoms often limit the span of actions available to special needs children, resulting in decreased physical activity.
Reasoning ability is a critical detail connected to learning obstacles experienced by children with ID. Reasoning ability is an important cognitive function related to working memory performance, which allows children to identify various patterns and relationships between ideas and concepts (Partanen et al., 2020). However, in children with ID disorders, the working memory capacity is significantly reduced, leading to problems in using reasoning ability and skills independent of previously learned knowledge (Söderqvist et al., 2012). Considering that academic achievement has been linked with reasoning ability, young individuals with diminished intelligence experience difficulties in successful learning (Kirk et al., 2015). The lack of capability to understand abstract ideas and infer new resolutions prevents productive writing, reading, and listening, significantly complicating education.
Social Skills and Communication: The Relationship Between ID and Interpersonal Interaction
The impact on the cognitive functions caused by ID disorders affects various spheres of children’s lives, extending to the area of social functioning. A diminished capacity for understanding abstract concepts, quickly comprehending novel information, and adjusting to the surrounding circumstances creates remarkable obstacles for special needs children, hindering the development of close relationships (Meyer & Ostrosky, 2014). Scholars report that young students with ID often suffer from a lack of adequate interpersonal connections, primarily caused by deficits in conceptual skills, detection of emotions, and conflict resolution strategies (Meyer & Ostrosky, 2014; Schoop-Kasteler & Müller, 2020). Forming stable relationships requires an appropriate level of emotional and social intelligence, which allows individuals to consistently maintain social interaction (Seitenov et al., 2020). Furthermore, reacting to others’ affectionate state and using relevant behaviors to acknowledge them is especially vital for successfully communicating with others. Considering this evidence, children with ID disorders are at a significant disadvantage in peer interaction, which results in the absence of strong friendships and social support.
A pertinent complication encountered by young individuals with ID is peer victimization. This phenomenon often occurs in classrooms and other social settings, resulting in abuse and bullying from peers (Okyere et al., 2019). Children with ID experience considerable difficulties in comprehending the learning materials, which highly distinguishes them from other students and prompts the emergence of negative attitudes. Usually perceived as weak and non-productive by other students, children with ID might be neglected or even abused by their peers, which tremendously decreases their well-being and educational potential (Werner et al., 2015). Behaviors, ideas, and emotional responses that differ from the norm have been shown to highlight the distinctions between special needs children and their typical peers, leading to the latter’s lack of interest in interaction (Werner et al., 2015). Therefore, the changes initiated by the ID’s influence on cognitive and intellectual functions contribute to social unacceptance and diminished quality of interpersonal interaction.
Another vital difficulty is related to social inclusion and community contact. Studies report that children with ID are less engaged in recreational activities, which further separates them from their classmates and creates acceptance challenges (Anderson et al., 2011). Due to the deficits in understanding others’ emotions and appropriately reacting to peers’ behaviors, these children are often excluded from collaborative actions, either voluntarily or following peer pressure (Ferreira et al., 2017). Consistent communication with others and the initiative to uphold it is especially valuable for developing social competencies, additionally reassuring the peers of the individual’s interest in interaction. However, children with ID disorders are limited in their capacity to maintain effective interaction and demonstrate a willingness to participate, which negatively impacts others’ impressions (Webster & Carter, 2013). In this regard, typically developing children tend to avoid including peers with ID in activities, leading to a lack of social contact and impeding social skills growth.
The Formation of Close Relationships in ID Children
Considering the difficulties in maintaining basic social interaction, creating and sustaining friendships becomes a critical obstacle for children with ID. Deep and meaningful social relationships tremendously depend on people’s understanding of each other’s emotions and affective states (Meyer & Ostrosky, 2014). As such, when both individuals can efficiently perceive and interpret the other’s condition and communication needs, a productive friendship may arise (Webster & Carter, 2013). Nevertheless, children with ID experience substantial complications in successfully responding to emotional outputs and adjusting personal behavior, which hinders the possibility of achieving close interaction.
Taking into account the negative attitudes towards young individuals with ID and the reluctance to engage in long-term relationships with normally developing children, forming meaningful bonds becomes especially challenging for special needs students. As children usually choose peers that are similar to them in interests and behaviors, young people with ID are at significant risk of being excluded from interactions (Anderson et al., 2011). Although promoting social inclusion and introducing acceptance practices in the classroom might negate these complications, social skills deficits and misunderstanding still lead to incredibly low-quality of close friendships (Okyere et al., 2019). From this perspective, children with ID should be granted additional possibilities to develop their social competencies and successfully form meaningful bonds.
Social Skills Interventions: The Importance of Role Play, Video Modelling, and Social Stories
Following the complications emerging due to cognitive impairments in children with ID, several methods to improve the population’s social skills and friendship formation have been suggested. One of the prominent strategies is role play, which improves the child’s pretend-to-play abilities and encourages them to be socially active (O’Connor & Stagnitti, 2011). This strategy is based on the pretend play principle, where the children first learn to participate in the play activity by repeating the actions demonstrated by a role model. Such actions often include playing with dolls, transporting items, constructing objects, and participating in play sequences (O’Connor & Stagnitti, 2011). In general, these interventions depict the social actions that should be conducted by the children, allowing them to learn and enact the necessary practices. Play interventions have been reported to be highly effective in teaching young individuals with ID, leading to significant increases in play scores, language competency, and social skills (O’Connor & Stagnitti, 2011). By training the children to overcome potential difficulties in interpersonal communication and guiding them during learning, this method provides sufficient ground for successful performance in a real social setting.
Another tactic that is currently highly investigated by the scientific community is the video modeling exercise. This method relies on a similar principle as the role-play activity, but it is more heavily dependent on the concept of observational learning (Gül, 2016). During this intervention, instead of interacting with a model individual, children are presented with a video that depicts the actions expected of them and elicits behavior repetition. Although this method does not allow the children to directly interact with the target, findings suggest that participants can efficiently copy the observed acts, learning to understand emotions and provide relevant reactions (Gül, 2016). Considering the success of this intervention, scholars propose that the use of a virtual environment is also advantageous for children with disabilities (Ratcliffe et al., 2015). As such, young individuals can gain the necessary competencies not only through direct communication but also through observational learning.
In light of the effectiveness of the virtual reality method, another approach involving the creation of hypothetical situations was suggested. The Social Stories intervention consists of a short story that discusses the subjects of social skills, emotional output, and various social cues (Gül, 2016). The content is offered to the child, prompting them to analyze the described situation and explain why specific actions were conducted. Research reveals that Social Stories are highly effective in social knowledge acquisition, providing children with an opportunity to practice multiple interaction methods (Ng et al., 2016). As such, children who participated in this intervention have been reported to perform considerably better in the social setting, successfully upholding communication and forming stable relationships (Ng et al., 2016). Thus, Social Stories appear to be a viable tactic for children with ID and other disorders that impede the development of social skills.
To conclude, the primary difficulties following ID disorders in children have been discussed in this essay, presenting a comprehensive overview of complications related to social skills and friendship formation. Developmental delays, genetic conditions, and health problems often result in cognitive disabilities that prevent children from successfully communicating with others, performing memory and reasoning tasks, as well as reading, writing, and learning new information. Given that young individuals with ID possess a lower capacity for understanding others’ emotions and appropriately reacting to social cues, they encounter various obstacles in establishing peer relationships. Differences in ideas and behaviors, negative attitudes, and social exclusion especially contribute to isolation and lack of contact, further decreasing the possibility of forming friendship bonds. However, such strategies as role-playing, video modeling, and Social Stories might be highly beneficial in alleviating the obstructive consequences of ID, engaging children in social settings, and improving their social skills.
Anderson, K., Balandin, S., & Clendon, S. (2011). “He cares about me and I care about him.” Children’s experiences of friendship with peers who use AAC. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 27(2), 77–90.
Ferreira, M., Aguiar, C., Correia, N., Fialho, M., & Pimentel, J. S. (2017). Social experiences of children with disabilities in inclusive Portuguese preschool settings. Journal of Early Intervention, 39(1), 33–50.
Gül, S. O. (2016). The combined use of video modeling and Social Stories in teaching social skills for individuals with intellectual disability. Educational Sciences: Theory & Practice, 16(1), 83–107.
Guralnick, M. J. (2017). Early intervention for children with intellectual disabilities: An update. Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities, 30(2), 211–229.
Kirk, H. E., Gray, K., Riby, D. M., & Cornish, K. M. (2015). Cognitive training as a resolution for early executive function difficulties in children with intellectual disabilities. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 38, 145–160.
Meyer, L. E., & Ostrosky, M. M. (2014). Measuring the friendships of young children with disabilities: A review of the literature. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 34(3), 186–196.
Ng, A. H. S., Schulze, K., Rudrud, E., & Leaf, J. B. (2016). Using the Teaching Interactions Procedure to teach social skills to children with autism and intellectual disability. American Journal on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 121(6), 501-519.
O’Connor, C., & Stagnitti, K. (2011). Play, behaviour, language and social skills: The comparison of a play and a non-play intervention within a specialist school setting. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 32(3), 1205–1211.
Okyere, C., Aldersey, H. M., & Lysaght, R. (2019). The experiences of children with intellectual and developmental disabilities in inclusive schools in Accra, Ghana. African Journal of Disability, 8, 1–11.
Partanen, P., Jansson, B., & Sundin, Ö. (2020). Fluid reasoning, working memory and planning ability in assessment of risk for mathematical difficulties. Educational Psychology in Practice, 36(3), 229–240.
Ratcliffe, B., Wong, M., Dossetor, D., & Hayes, S. (2015). The association between social skills and mental health in school-aged children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, with and without intellectual disability. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 45(8), 2847–2496.
Schoop-Kasteler, N., & Müller, C. M. (2020). Peer relationships of students with intellectual disabilities in special needs classrooms – a systematic review. Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs, 20(2), 130–145.
Seitenov, A. S., Aubakirova, R. Z., Kostyunina, A. A., Mishchenko, E. V., & Shevchenko, N. B. (2020). Development of social intelligence in preschool children by art therapy: Case study of Oyna Educational Centre. International Journal of Learning, Teaching and Educational Research, 19(5), 276–288. Web.
Söderqvist, S., Bergman Nutley, S., Ottersen, J., Grill, K. M., & Klingberg, T. (2012). Computerized training of non-verbal reasoning and working memory in children with intellectual disability. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6.
Webster, A. A., & Carter, M. (2013). A descriptive examination of the types of relationships formed between children with developmental disability and their closest peers in inclusive school settings. Journal of Intellectual & Developmental Disability, 38(1), 1–11.
Werner, S., Peretz, H., & Roth, D. (2015). Israeli children’s attitudes toward children with and without disabilities. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 33, 98–107.
Westendorp, M., Houwen, S., Hartman, E., & Visscher, C. (2011). Are gross motor skills and sports participation related in children with intellectual disabilities? Research in Developmental Disabilities, 32(3), 1147–1153.
Williams, K., Jacoby, P., Whitehouse, A., Kim, R., Epstein, A., Murphy, N., Reid, S., Leonard, H., Reddihough, D., & Downs, J. (2020). Functioning, participation, and quality of life in children with intellectual disability: An observational study. Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology, 63, 89–96.