Many school districts have inclusive, co-taught classrooms as a special education program. These classrooms are at least 50% mainstream students mixed with children who qualify for special education. The classes are co-taught by a general ed. teacher and special ed. teacher. I've seen this model work exceptionally well, integrating special needs into a typical classroom environment and enriching the education of all the students.
Unfortunately, the children with special needs who are included in school are often excluded in the "real world". Parents of typical children are uncomfortable or unsure of how to practice inclusive parenting. What if the autistic boy down the street starts flapping his hands? What would we possibly do with that little girl from dance class who refuses to talk? How can the kids go in and out of the house when a visitor uses a wheelchair?
We take the easy route. We assure ourselves that those parents are making sure their kids socialize, and really we'd just be bothering them. We remind ourselves about our lack of experience with special needs. We say it's in everyone's best interest because we wouldn't know what to do in an emergency.
Meanwhile, parents of children with special needs feel isolated and rejected. They know others are uncomfortable around their kids and don't want to impose. They are tired of people staring at their family and judging their parenting skills. They sometimes wish that life could be normal.
What can we do?
Smile and start a conversation. About what? Anything! This is another parent; you already have something in common. "She sure is enjoying the music today!" "Isn't it great to get the kids outside?" Parents of young children often long for adult conversation because they feel trapped at home. So do parents of children with special needs.
Initiate a get-together. The best way to learn how to interact with this child is to see him with his parents. Invite parent and child to your house and add, "or we could come to you if that would be easier." Be willing to make multiple overtures as his parents might be reluctant to believe your offer is genuine.
Don't take it personally. You might have several broken dates. The child might be having a bad day or get too nervous or have some other complication. Accept whatever reason is given without trying to read more into it. Maybe they just forgot! (Hey, these parents are human too!)
Get information from the source. If you will be having the child over to your house without her parent, ask any questions ahead of time. Don't trust the internet for an explanation of symptoms. Each child is unique and any disability will be expressed in different ways. You might say, "Is there anything I can do to make Sally more comfortable?" or "What types of activities does Joey like at home?" These give parents an opening to share relevant information and let them know you care about their child.
Be honest. If there is a particular behavior that concerns you, talk about it. "I'm never sure when Alex is flapping his hands if he's upset or excited. Should I intervene when that happens?" "I know Danielle is still learning how to control herself when she's upset. What's the best way for me to keep everyone safe if something happens?" It may feel awkward, because we've all been taught not to discuss other's disabilities, but most parents will appreciate your honesty and willingness to be accommodating.
Enjoy! You and your children can benefit in huge ways from this friendship. You learn how to see the world from another perspective, how to put others' needs first, and how to look beyond first impressions. As a parent, you can get great ideas for streamlining your life from your new friend (because if anyone needs to know tricks to save time and reduce stress, it's parents of kids with special needs!). Finally, your child makes a new friend -- one who can sing beautifully or tell amazing stories or teach you all you need to know about computer programming or respond with compassion or hundreds of other things! You'll never know until you take the first step.