6 ways to be a good long-distance friend to someone with intellectual disability

27 August 2020


Hi, my name is Teresa. Just because I don’t speak, doesn’t mean I don’t know how to socialise! One of my favourite things is to grab a smartphone and say hi to my family and friends – even better if a filter is involved! Staying in touch with the people I love is so important to me. Hope you enjoy this blog so you can be as social as me.


Friendship is an important part of everyone’s life and distance doesn’t need to get in the way of that. 2020 is a year that has been more distant than most. It might be that you are living interstate and unable to visit each other, or maybe your government has asked that you maintain social distancing to help keep everyone safe. Just because you can’t see each other in person does not mean that your friendships have to suffer.

We’ve been getting some questions from folks out there who want to know how they can be there for their friends with intellectual disability while they can’t be physically present – especially in an uncertain time. We want to take a moment to thank those people – what a great question! We love that you’re thinking about how you can help.

We’ve put our heads together and come up with some tips.


1. Build a new social routine

For the vast majority of us, the virus impacted our regular routines. Many people, disability or no disability, find comfort in the structure of a routine – so it could be time to build some new ones with your pals.

Here are some ideas:

  • You could watch the same show at the same time each week
  • You could send a photo every morning to each other
  • You could go old school and write letters once a fortnight
  • You could eat breakfast and lunch at the same time each day

A routine is essentially just something you do on a recurring basis. Routines help give us structure and a sense of control. Sometimes when the feeling of being ‘lost’ begins to creep in, a solid routine and sense of purpose can be a welcome antidote.

If you’re looking for things to do with your friend, you can check out some of our downloadable activities for people with intellectual disability over at the Thrive Online Hub.


2. Communicate in a way that works for the both of you

It’s well documented that a lot of people with disability aren’t quite as tech-savvy as the general population. It would be heartbreaking if they missed out on social opportunities due to a tech-barrier.

The good thing is that the ways in which you can communicate and bond are only limited by your imagination. You could bust out the letter writing stationary, pick up a landline phone or even knit messages into a snuggly pair of socks and send that on - there are lots of ways you can communicate without the latest tech.

The best way to tackle this is to have a chat and brainstorm some of the communication methods that will work for your friendship. You might need to get creative!


3. Let them know specific ways you can help or would like to be helped

If you get the sense that your friend might be going through a bit of a hard time, you’ll most likely want to be there for them.

‘What can I do to help?’ can actually be a really hard question to answer – especially for someone with intellectual disability.

In the context of the pandemic, there’s a lot of rules and they change all the time. It can be hard to know what’s allowed when it comes to helping someone out. They also might be afraid to say because they might feel that they’re asking for too much.

Instead of asking an open-ended question, maybe you could come up with some ideas of ways that you can help safely and offer those up instead.

You might offer to drop around an activity, organise an online social gathering, teach them a new technology or offer to pick stuff up from the shops for them – there’s so much you can do.

Something important to note here is that this is a friendship, so it’s definitely a two-way street.

Sure, lots of people with disability will need a bit of extra help and support during this time, but they might also want to help out others. Friendship is all about giving and receiving, and friendships are best when they are between two equals. Just because we are in a crisis does not mean that you have to instantly become a carer. If you are in their life as a friend, focus on being just that.


4. Don’t make assumptions

This one is universal – disability or no disability.

Often we go into a social situation assuming we know how someone is feeling, or how they will respond to a situation. Don’t do this!

As a friend, our role is to listen and seek to understand. In the context of a pandemic you might expect them to be in a wild panic but actually they are very calm, or you might find that they are a bit down when you expected them to be happy, or you might assume they need lots of help, but actually they are doing great. We are all going through something pretty significant and everyone is going to react in their own way. All we can do as friends is approach each interaction with understanding, compassion and openness.

If you sense a friend is struggling – of course you should reach out. But something important to note here is that just because they have a disability, it doesn’t automatically mean that they are struggling. If they decline your offer to help – that’s ok! We are noticing many of the people in our community taking this opportunity to increase their independence.

If you or a loved one needs mental health support – help is available. A good place to start is with Beyond Blue, and Lifeline telephone counselling, 13 11 14 (24 hours).


5. Make plans for the future

People with intellectual disability might find it difficult to imagine life after coronavirus. One of the best things you can do is also one of the simplest - make plans for the future.

Hope is one of the most powerful tools we have at the moment and with things being cancelled left, right and centre it can be really hard to cope.

This is especially important if you celebrated a milestone while in lockdown. A silver lining to this is that now you have a lot of extra time to plan a belated birthday party or fun event!


6. Acknowledge it’s confusing

One of the hardest things for us to do as people is to acknowledge they we don’t understand or know what’s going on. We don’t want to look silly or stupid!

People with intellectual disability might assume that everyone around them understands exactly what’s going on in the world. One of the best things you can do as a friend is acknowledge that this, in fact, it is a super confusing time for all Australians

While we’re all muddling through this time doing the best we can – it’s important to remember we will always be stronger when we are together (even if that means that we are together at home).

Thank you to our Endeavour Foundation Champion Teresa for being in the image for this blog.

Contact us to find out how we can support you


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