Friendships are an important part of most people’s lives. They help us feel like we belong and are worthwhile, and they can offer us support when things are difficult in our lives.

Learning how to make friends from an early age is important as it is through friendships that children learn how to deal with everyday life events and social norms. Children who do not have this opportunity ”can suffer from emotional and mental difficulties later in life.” 

It is commonly accepted that friendships are an important part of most people’s lives. An Australian study, conducted by the Centre for Ageing Studies at Flinders University, followed nearly 1,500 older people for 10 years. It found that those who had a large network of friends outlived those with the fewest friends by 22%. 

This suggests that having friends in our lives may actually increase our life expectancy. As adults, friends can often replace family as the most significant people in our lives. Through friends, we are linked to other social circles and interests, and we know that we have people who care about us and with whom we can enjoy our lives.

Friendships and people with learning disabilities

Friendships between people with learning disabilities have sometimes been overlooked or seen as less worthwhile by others despite the fact that they are often highly valued by people with learning disabilities. A recent report from the Centre for Disability Research claims that people with learning disabilities are less likely than the general population to have contact with friends and members of their family with whom they were not living.

For those with learning disabilities who do not live with their families, the main people in their lives are their support workers.  A 2006 study showed that many people with learning disabilities view their support workers as friends, whilst these support workers often would not classify themselves as such. This highlights how people with learning disabilities can have limited access to meeting new people and developing true friendships, as well as showing the loss experienced when support staff move on taking their ‘friendship’ with them.  Just like everyone else, people with learning disabilities need stable and long-lasting relationships in their lives.

The main issue experienced by people with learning disabilities is that of connecting with people to generate and sustain new friendships.  This is especially true whilst at school,  and immediately upon leaving school. As adults people with learning disabilities may leave the family home for the first time and move into supported living or their own accommodation. This often creates an absence of people in their daily lives which their family/carers used to fill.  

Everyone can struggle to make new friends as they get older, but for people with learning disabilities this can be compounded by a lack of opportunities to meet new people, especially if they do not have the support to help them to make new connections.

Work in this area by the Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities

The Foundation has run a number of projects and guides to support the process of making new friendships and maintaining existing ones:

  • Circles of support are about the bringing together of the people in the life of a disabled person to think about their life, and the things that matter to them. Circles have several uses, from maintaining a social network through to planning bigger things, such as moving house or looking for a job. Friendships and connecting to other people can be an important part of the circle's role.
  • Community Connecting is about helping people with learning disabilities establish more meaningful and lasting connections with people in their communities. As day centres and residential homes become a thing of the past, people with learning disabilities are spending more time with their local communities. Some people find it easy to make new friends and access things in their areas, but some people may need more support, which they may not be able to afford through their personal budgets/direct payments. Relationships can take a long time to build and may at first need some facilitation to ensure they are right for both parties. This is what community connecting is all about.