Supporting our friends who are fellow parents often involves sharing and listening to stories of similar struggles: how you get your kids to do their homework or their chores,
as well as stories of similar triumphs—potty-training, Little League championships, or getting inducted into the National Honor Society. When a friend's child has a disability, finding that common ground may seem a little more difficult, and even the most well-intentioned people might find themselves fumbling with how to still be a good friend. Here, parents of children with special needs share some of the most helpful behaviors of their friends and family.
The mother of an eighteen-year-old boy with autism says, "Just talk to them about it." Acting as though the disability (or the child) doesn't exist is not helpful. What is helpful is asking about what the child (or the family) needs, and having a good sense of humor and patience. "We didn't do a lot of socializing—visiting was hard. My son likes to familiarize himself with new surroundings. He wants to open cupboards and doors." As her son grew, and learned specific socialization skills, she needed friends and family to be patient and be part of the process. Respect for people's personal space and privacy, and appropriate interactions based on whether someone was a stranger, friend, family, or close family, were all nuanced skills to be learned as a continuing process.
Friends and family members who are interested in the process and willing to help could be a great source of support. Friends and family who are willing to learn about autism, and who use that knowledge to modify their own behavior, could also be helpful. For example, many autistic children are not comfortable with physical contact, such as hugging. Knowing not to force a request for a hug or a kiss could help make interactions more comfortable. Interpreting language in a very literal way is another hallmark of autism. Being intentional with language, such as saying, "Please speak more quietly" instead of "Keep it down," helps avoid confusion. While you don't need to become an "expert," or discuss the contents of every article you've seen about the condition, spending some time getting acquainted with what a particular diagnosis might mean for your friend and her child could help you to be a good friend.
One mother, whose daughter has cerebral palsy, commented that she wished her friends would realize her child is more than her special need, with interests, likes, and dislikes that are dictated by age and personal preference. She recommends engaging in conversation and activity with the child, not just his or her parents. Be inclusive and welcoming; make sure your friend knows that her child is welcome in your home, and in your activities.
Another mom said that it's tough when her friends are all comparing notes about their children's accomplishments, when they are doing things that her son might not ever be able to achieve. She said it's nice when friends or family give her the chance to "brag" about her son, by asking about his interests, favorite toys, and activities. She appreciates open-ended questions that allow her friends to learn about her son, instead of focusing on developmental timeline questions, such as "Is he walking yet?"
Offering time is another way to give support, especially if your friend has more than one child. While parents might not be comfortable with the idea of a friend taking their special needs child on an outing, it is still something you could offer, and let the parent and child decide whether or not to accept. And the offer of an outing for another child in the family might also be appreciated. Ask, "What can I do to help?" and ask often. Parents of special needs children may feel overwhelmed with all of their responsibilities, and an offer of help in running errands, completing a project, or anything else that acknowledges their heavy load (and helps to lighten it a bit) shows you care about them and their family.
As with many things, some of the best advice was the simplest: Be loving, be patient, and be present.
Written by Jennifer Reynolds, staff writer for West Michigan Woman.