Friends and Friendships: Exploring the Views of School-aged Children with Disabilities
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Background: Friends and friendships are critical to well-being, and they typically develop during childhood. Children with disabilities, particularly those with physical and communication disabilities, have limited interactions with peers, which may impact their friendships. Research on views of children with disabilities about their friendships is scarce, and the scope of research evidence in this area is unknown. Purpose: This thesis sought to explore how school-age children with disabilities describe and characterise their friends and friendships with peers. Special attention was given to children with motor and communication disabilities, as they have been reported to have profoundly limited social networks. Methods: I conducted two inter-related studies, starting with the scoping review to identify key characteristics and quality of friendships of children with disabilities (aged 5–15), according to them. Subsequently, I conducted an exploratory descriptive qualitative study with children with motor and communication impairments who used augmentative and alternative communication (AAC). Results: The 51 studies found in the review reported views of children mostly with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities. The majority of children described friendships as companionship and helping and supporting each other and they met with friends mainly at school. The children had lower friendships qualities than their peers without disabilities and reported experiences of enjoyment and belonging as well as rejection and exclusion. In Study 2, children who used AAC characterised friendships similarly -by spending time together in activities and showing fondness towards each other. Children without disabilities talked about joint activities; however, they also talked about trust and loyalty and reported a wider range of indoor and outdoor activities. Conclusions: This thesis found that 5–15 years old children with disabilities, including those who used AAC, described friendships in relation to spending time together and engaging in activities with peers. Yet, the findings also highlighted restricted social contexts and activity settings experienced by children, which suggests limited opportunities to spend time together and develop meaningful relationships over time. Future research should aim to better understand the friendships of children with disabilities at different ages as well as conditions supporting and inhibiting joint participation.