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Healthy Friendships and Relationships

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Different Kinds of Relationships

We see lots of different people every day. Some are closer to us than others. For example, we are usually very close to our family and friends. We talk with them and share our thoughts and feelings. We might not be as close to our neighbors. We might smile or say “hello,” but not even know their names.

Here are some of the people we see every day:

Paid Supports: A paid support is someone you pay to provide you with a service (doctors or dentists, grocery clerks, barbers or beauticians, bank tellers, mechanics, etc.). You may know some of these people very well. Others, you may not know at all. As a direct support professional (DSP), you would fit into this category.

Acquaintances:  Acquaintances are people that you recognize. You may wave or say “hello” when you see them. You might not know their names. They might be neighbors or people you see at the bus stop.

Group Members:  Some people belong to the same clubs or groups as you. These may be people that you see at work or school. You may enjoy doing things with them in the group or at work but not see them otherwise.

Friend: A friend is someone that you like to be with. You enjoy talking to this person and doing things together.

Family:  Family includes parents, sisters, brothers, cousins and other relatives. Some people are very close with their family. Some people do not see their family very much.

Close Friendships and Romantic Relationships:  Some relationships are very close. Close relationships develop when two people love each other and like to spend time together. You can have close relationships with many people. Some close relationships involve romantic feelings.

Most people can name someone in their lives for every type of relationship that we just listed. However, people with developmental disabilities may be able to name only paid supports as friends. As a DSP, your challenge is to help the individuals that you support develop a variety of healthy friendships and relationships.

Why are friendships and relationships important?

Everyone likes to have friends with whom they can talk and have fun. Without friends, we feel lonely and sad. As a DSP, you have a very special relationship with the people that you support. You share many things with them. But you are a paid support—not simply a friend. You can help individuals that you support to socialize and make friends, but you should not be the center of their social lives.

When an individual has no one else in his or her life, you become that person’s only source of connection. This is a big responsibility. When you are not around, they will have little social life. If you leave for another job, they will feel very sad. They may find it hard to trust another staff member.

Helping individuals that you support to make other connections can help them rely on you less heavily. If the individuals that you support have friendships and family relationships in their lives, everyone wins!

What makes it difficult for people with developmental disabilities to make and keep friendships and relationships?

People with developmental disabilities can face many challenges in meeting and getting to know others. To meet new friends, a person usually needs to get involved in activities outside of their home. This can be challenging for individuals with developmental disabilities. Some need help to find activities that they enjoy. Others can attend activities outside of their homes only if family members or supports go with them. They may need assistance because of physical, mental or emotional issues. Some can go out by themselves, but need help with transportation. Any of these factors can make it hard for individuals with developmental disabilities to meet new people and develop relationships.

How can you help the people you support with friendships and relationships?

There is no set program or formula for starting a relationship. Friendships typically grow out of shared activities and interests. This is true for all of us. However, as a DSP, there are many ways for you to create opportunities for individuals that you support to meet new people and develop friendships.

Here is a step-by-step approach.

  • Sit down with each person that you support (or with someone who knows them well) and talk about things that they like to do.
  • Identify one or two interests or favorite activities.
  • Find out where and when those activities happen. For example, someone may have an interest in gardening. The next step would be to see what’s going on in your community. Does the local nursery have a gardening class? Is there a neighbor who has a garden? Is there a Master Gardener who can help plan a garden? All of these activities create opportunities for meeting new people and making friends.
  • Check out local civic groups, community colleges, adult schools or libraries. Look for events that match the person's interests? Help them choose activities and to get involved.
  • You may need to provide or arrange for transportation.
  • Individuals may also need support attending an activity, especially the first few times.
  • Prepare the person for a new activity. Practice meeting new people. This will give the person the chance to practice their social skills in real-life situations.
  • Provide encouragement and support.

You can also use your own skills to help build a community. Connecting individuals with developmental disabilities to others in their communities is easy for some DSPs and difficult for others. We all have community connections. We can use these to assist the people we support.

Think about your own relationship network. Set aside one staff meeting to brainstorm and write down all of the community connections you and your co-workers have. You can never tell when one of them might match an interest of someone you support and lead to an opportunity for developing new friendships.

  • Figure out who is the best natural “connector.” These are usually staff that are already active in their communities and know lots of people. They can be resources for others.
  • Explore your community. Use this worksheet to list places and activities that create opportunities for meeting people.


Friends: A Manual for Connecting Persons with Disabilities and Community Members
This manual suggests ways to help people with disabilities to develop friendships and relationships. Amado, A.N., Conklin, F., & Wells, J. (1990) Available from the Minnesota Governor’s Planning Council on Developmental Disabilities, 300 Centennial Office Building, 658 Cedar Street, St. Paul, MN 55155, (612) 296-4018 A resource of books and videos about inclusion in school, work and community

Healthy Relationships and Safe Sex: Tips for Self-Advocates

Prepared by Joe Meadours, a self-advocate from Alabama and Executive Director of People First of California, with research and editorial help from Reena Wagle, Ph.D., Human Services Research Institute. 2006. For copies contact the Human Services Research Institute, 7420 S.W. Bridgeport Road, Suite #210, Portland, OR 97224; 503-924-3783;

Friendships and Community Connections between People with and without Developmental Disabilities

Descriptions of successful experiences and principles that help others build relationships through social connections. Edited by Angela Novak Amado and available through Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co., P. O. Box 10624, Baltimore, MD 21285-0624.

Last updated on Tue, 04/06/2010 - 16:42