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How do I… help my deaf child make friends?

For deaf children, communication barriers can make it difficult to form friendships. Here, three parents and one young person share their advice about what you can do.

Autumn 2022 Families magazine

Oli is dad to Jessica (11) and Penny (8) who are profoundly deaf and wear cochlear implants.

When Jessica and Penny have had difficulty making friends, it’s usually because of other children not understanding that the girls can’t hear what’s being said in passing. If they’re in a large group, they’ll miss out on the conversation. They find it better to talk one-on-one, which can affect how many friends they make. We remind the girls that they may misunderstand subtle gestures and cues when they can’t hear the context. Once their peers understand their needs, the good ones will accommodate that and repeat things if they don’t hear first time round. We also make sure the girls spend time with other deaf children, because it’s important for them to understand deafness is not an outlier. It’s something other children have too, and they’re just as ‘normal’ as Jessica and Penny are!

My main advice to other parents would be that, for deaf children, deep friendships may take longer to develop because they need to spend more time alone in a quiet space getting to know each other. Don’t expect your child to have loads of friends straightaway! That’s OK – particularly when they’re in primary school and are growing so quickly. It’s not important to have loads of friends, just someone they can confide in and enjoy playing with.

Hayat is mum to Nuuh (9) who’s severely to profoundly deaf and wears one hearing aid and one cochlear implant.

Nuuh has autism and global developmental delay, but at his specialist playgroup no one thought him any different. He was welcomed and even began playing with other children. When Nuuh started nursery, his only friends were his brothers. Nuuh doesn’t speak and, at the time, he barely signed. At school, he began to make friends, but the school didn’t run any after-school activities and social gatherings were difficult for him due to sensory overload. Nuuh loves going to the park, the beach and for walks in the forest, so we tried to find activities he could manage and would invite a neighbour or family member to join us.

What really helped Nuuh to make friends was when he was invited to a birthday party by his classmate. Nuuh enjoyed the party, and we learned the classmate was part of a local group for deaf children and their families, which we joined. They met up once a term and organised deaf-friendly activities, like meeting a signing Santa. I was nervous, but Nuuh coped well as he could follow what other children were doing. Most of the children signed and the older ones made sure he was included. Nuuh really enjoyed socialising with the group.

Lucy (17) is profoundly deaf due to CHARGE syndrome and uses British Sign Language (BSL).

My first school was a mainstream primary school. I felt very isolated. When I was five, my mum decided to move away from all our friends and family so that I could attend a deaf primary school. All the staff and pupils signed, and I was very happy there as I never felt left out.

When I moved to secondary school, my complex medical needs meant I had to attend a special school. I was the only deaf child. I began to feel isolated again, although I felt happier when a deaf girl from my primary school joined my secondary school and some of my peers started learning to sign.

I signed up for the National Deaf Children’s Society’s Pen Pal scheme because I wanted to make more deaf friends. The scheme helped me realise that being deaf isn’t a barrier to making new friends and building a bond with like-minded people. The confidence I gained through corresponding with my pen pal, Ella, enabled me to take part in the Pen Pal scheme for a second time! After the scheme ended, Ella and I exchanged phone numbers so we could text each other. We also exchanged gifts at Christmas! I hope to meet Ella in person one day.

[Note: the Pen Pal scheme is no longer running.]

Fiona is mum to Angus (11) who’s severely deaf and wears hearing aids.

Recently, Angus made a PowerPoint presentation about his deafness, explaining how best to communicate with him, which made a lot of parents less anxious about inviting him to parties and playdates. I’ve also found that joining clubs has helped. When Angus was younger, I tried the scatter-gun approach and allowed him to join lots of different clubs, which didn’t work as he needs longer than my hearing children to understand what’s expected of him at a club and to bond with the coach. We reduced the number of clubs he attends to his two favourite activities, which are currently rugby and swimming. Now, as he does those several times a week, he has a ready-made circle of friends.

One of the best things we did for Angus was joining the GB Deaf Swimming Club, which was the first time he made deaf friends. It’s so good to be with swimmers who all understand each other’s disabilities. We go to Deaf Action events, too. He was utterly thrilled when Rose Ayling-Ellis appeared on ‘Strictly Come Dancing’. Representation helps to make being deaf seem less different, which I think helps other children and particularly other parents be less wary of us.