October 29, 2015 Meeting: Social Circles

Building a “Good Life” through Social Relationship Circles

In building the notes for this meeting, I drew heavily on the excellent work done by PLAN: Safe and Secure, Seven Steps on the Path to a Good Life for People with Disabilities, Al Etmanski with Jack Collins and Vickie Cammack, and Friends & Inclusion, Five Approaches to Building Relationships, Peggy Hutchison & John Lord with Karen Lord. Many thanks to them for their clear thinking and caring hearts!   -Joette

(Throughout I will use the letters SP to refer to the Supported Person – the person for whom the circle is being built)

Fundamental Elements of A Good Life

Applicable to Everyone

  • Includes Health, Education/work, Housing, Financial Well-being, Leisure & Recreation, Personal Care. (See Worksheet 2 in the PLAN Safe & Secure book; this can be found online)

This does not imply that any one of us has something “wrong” in their life, but rather, that through intentional planning & action, we can make choices which will lead to a richer, more textured life.


What is A Good Life for our particular Supported Person? -Clarifying “A Good Life”

This will help in building an effective support circle now, and will serve as directives to our support network after we are gone.

  • List 10 words to describe a typical day/week for SP – best scenario
  • 10 words to describe a typical day/week for SP – worst scenario
  • Your message for your SP, after you are gone
  • What you want your survivors to help your SP with after you are gone
  • List 3 priorities that you would want helpers of your SP to know.


 A Case for Relationships

Friendship is a necessity for all of us, as important and essential to life as food and drink. Caring relationships and friends provide texture and vitality and make all living worthwhile.

  • People with supportive social ties are less likely to become ill
  • Social contact helps us to heal more quickly
  • Social supports affect the sense of control we have over our well-being and improve our ability to stick with healthy behaviour patterns.

If not surrounded by people who have a genuine interest in their well-being, our SPs may be at risk of abuse, neglect and exploitation.

Good friends support us through good times and bad, when we are on our best behavior, and when we are not. We don’t change ourselves to be with friends. Our gifts and our frailties are accepted as part of who we are. Our friends are not expected to fix us. They are just there.

 When we are truly loved and valued, we gain a sense of belonging. When we feel like we belong, we change for the better. Our confidence improves as does our self-esteem, our sense of well-being, and our quality of life. Life takes on new meaning.

 Friends, by sharing time with us, are saying that we are worth the gift of time.


Relationship Circles Diagram

Circles of Intimacy are one’s closest relationships – the anchors of one’s life.

Circles of Friendship are the people you draw strength from, and who you share your dreams with.

Circles of Participation are the people with whom your share an interest or activity – the people at work, or in a club, etc.

Circles of Exchange are your paid relationships – dentist, hair stylist, server in a restaurant, etc.

Typically, our SPs have the same number of relationships in Circle 1 as any other citizen, have more people in Circle 4, and have a lot fewer relationships in Circles 2 & 3.



There is no idea more ancient than a circle of friends. And there is nothing more predictable than the discovery by such a circle that the one in need is somehow helping the others.

John Ralston Saul

Friendships, ranging from acquaintances to intimate relationships, are formed by choice. They are freely given, based on mutual interests. Friendships are not one-sided. They are reciprocal, a two-way exchange. They are not paid visitors. They are not volunteers. They are not one-to-one workers.

A PLAN study of a few years ago found that SPs make a real difference in the lives of their friends & supporters, and that the relationships between SPs and supporters were mutually beneficial. In the context of relationships, our family members are contributors.


Success in Friendship Building

Particular learned skills are required in initiating and developing our acquaintances and friendships, and these skills improve with practice. For most people, these skills develop through trial and error, throughout childhood. They learn how to initiate contact with peers, how to keep the relationship going, and how to resolve conflict through negotiation, sharing, and compromise.

 Fifty percent of the friendship building attempts of preschoolers end in rejection. Apparently, practice makes perfect.

Some people, especially people on the autism spectrum, do not experience or do not have success with this trial & error process. Others, through relocation, accident or injury, may need to relearn how to make friends. To make matters even more difficult, they may have tried to make friends, were rebuffed, and then became discouraged from trying again. They may lack or have lost confidence. They may believe that no one would want to be their friend.


Intentional Support Circles

Friendships only rarely develop by chance. A friend of mine says that you never know how life is going to unfold, but, by your actions, you can manipulate the odds to be in your favour, to line up with your goals.

A Circle of Belonging or an Intentional Personal Support Network is a team that comes together by choice, for the safety, health, and well-being of the SP. All members are in touch with each other, and their involvement is coordinated.

Beyond services, the best guarantee of a safe & secure future for a person is the number of caring and committed friends, family members, acquaintances, and supporters actively involved in their life.

Like a spider’s web, the strength of these caring relationships is not only in their connection to the SP, but in their inter-connectedness, in their connection to each other.

A Support Circle should deal with all of the ‘functional’ aspects of an individual’s life, already mentioned – health, housing, financial well-being, and personal care.

A Support Circle will:

  • Monitor programs & services
  • Advocate agencies on behalf of our SP
  • Serve as executors, trustees, or advisors
  • Respond to a crisis
  • Solve unexpected problems
  • Carry out the wishes of parents.

For us, in this discussion, I will focus on the social, intellectual/creative, and spiritual aspects of life that a support circle can facilitate.


The Process of Building a Support Circle


Take lots of time to focus on the interests, passions, and possibilities for connections for the SP. Make a long list of possible Circle members.


Follow up on all ideas and leads. Extend invitations to prospective members, and introduce members to each other, usually over sharing a meal. Develop practical implementation strategies.


Meet regularly – at least 3 times per year for the first few years. Introduce new activities to respond to new interests, and replace circle members as required. It is important that all members feel supported, and that the support of the SP is a shared privilege and responsibility.

Contributions of Members

Circle members contribute by:

  • Creating opportunities for our SPs to express their gifts
  • Assisting our SPs in developing their talents
  • By their presence, letting our SPs know that they are valued.

Supported Persons contribute by:

  • Doing – Working, teaching, volunteering.
  • Being – as with all of us, by offering their time, attentiveness, caring, inspiration, pleasure, loyalty & friendship.

Worksheet 5 – Contribution worksheet. 


Building a Good Life now through Intentional Circles

Social Networks Diagram

Look at Education/Work:

  • Current education and/or work. What did/do they like about it? What don’t/didn’t they like about it?
  • Dreams about education/work that they would like to explore…

Look at People:

  •  Friends or family from the past that the SP liked connecting with. Significant people in life of SP.
  • Whose company do they enjoy the most, who is most supportive of them?
  • Friends, family or neighbours where relationships could be enhanced.

Look at Activities:

  • List past social, recreational, cultural, artistic, and athletic activities. List current…
  • Identify preferred interests & activities from this list. F
  • Identify future possibilities, perhaps not tried before.
  • How does your SP spend his/her free time? What gives your SP peace, joy, Comfort? Favorite possessions?

Look at Inner Life:

  •  What are the SP beliefs & values? Valued customs & traditions? Spirituality? Religion? Links to churches?


Cautionary notes

  Be patient!

  • It usually takes about two years to become a smoothly functioning team.
  • Focus on what the SP can do, their gifts and talents, rather than what they can’t do, or what is hard for them to do.
  • Connections between members are as important as the relationship of individual members to the SP.
  • Look for members who are creative, pragmatic, and who pay attention to detail.
  • Look for members who are good event planners, and who have good connections in the community.

Be open!

  • Dare to invite people to be part of our support circle. We worry that others may feel obliged or that they will say yes because they feel sorry for us or for our supported individual. This worry speaks to past hurts and makes us forget the gifts our SP has to offer. Often our SPs have brought richness and meaning to others in ways we are unaware of. Often people have wanted to offer help but did not know how.
  • Make space or change schedules to permit others to engage with our SP.
  • Let go. Allow our patterns & routines to be changed by making room for others to take over some tasks & activities that we, as parents, have been doing.

Believe! – we may have been hurt by the absence of invitations to birthday parties and sleepovers, and ache for our SP who wants to be included. Our fears block our ability to be open to others, and to trust in their integrity.