How to be a friend to an autism parent…
Your dear friend has shared some very personal and difficult news with you: her child has been diagnosed with autism. You may not know what to say or how to act. You don’t really know anyone else with an autistic child, so this is all very new to you.
As a mother to a child with autism, I’ve had friends and family disappear on me and others who have stuck by me without hesitation. Here are some pointers on how to be a good friend to an autism parent.
Pledge NOT to disappear
You might not know what to say or how to react when your friend discloses her child’s autism diagnosis, but one of the worst things you can do is check out. It’s a difficult time in your friends life and he or she will need love and support. Put yourself in your friends shoes. She (or he) is likely feeling scared, lonely and isolated. Imagine being abandoned when you’re feeling vulnerable.
Be there for your friend.
Invite and KEEP inviting them to social events
Parents may isolate themselves from friends and family members. They often feel alone because no one else in their lives can relate to an autism diagnosis. This is the time to include your friend and his or her child (or children).
Feeling included and a sense of belonging to a social network is a great feeling, Don’t give up on your friend if she RSVP’s “No” to a party or bails out on something at the last minute. She isn’t doing this because she doesn’t want to be a part of your festivities, her circumstances are different and unpredictable and you need to be aware of this.
Set up playdates with your typical children
Playdates for children with autism are vital to their social development, particularly with ‘typical’ children.
Plan ahead. Ask your friend what toys or activities his or her child enjoys before you see them. Children with autism do well when they are motivated by something they want or enjoy, this can make the playdate fun for both your child and your friends child.
Don’t feel sorry for your friend
Your friend may be struggling with the difficulties and challenges that come with raising a child on the autism spectrum, but the last thing they want is your pity.
“I never want anyone to feel sorry for me” says Katherine, mother to an 8 year old son on the autism spectrum. “I’m not looking for pity, I’m looking for true friends who will stick by me no matter what I’m dealing with in my personal life.”
Offer to babysit your friends child
Nine times out of ten, your friend won’t take you up on this offer as children with ASD may have some very challenging behaviours that might be off-putting or difficult to manage for many, but the gesture will mean a lot.
A friend of mine offered (and continues to do so) to babysit my son and it meant so much to me. No, I haven’t taken her up on the offer, but to know she cares and wants to see me get some respite is what true friendship is all about.
Don’t be afraid to talk about your typical children
You are proud of your children and you want the world to know about your son’s recent soccer trophy or your daughter’s amazing performance at her recent dance recital. Don’t shy away from sharing these life events with your friend. Your friend may not be able to relate, but that doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t beam about your wonderful children.
I won’t lie, sometimes it’s difficult for autism parents to hear the things they know their child may never accomplish, but that is something we have to deal with, it’s not your problem. So, share away!
Stand up and be a voice for them and their children
For example, perhaps you’ve had conversations with other parents who come to their own snap judgements about a child with special needs and their family members. Maybe they don’t want their own children in the same class as a child with autism or G-d forbid, play with a kid who may be on the spectrum. They’re afraid of what they don’t understand, many of us are.
Set those people straight. Tell them that kids with autism shouldn’t be shunned and discriminated against. Tell these people that parents of children with autism work so hard every single day to give their children the same opportunities as every other child. You may fall on deaf ears, but spreading awareness and understanding on your friends behalf is something to be admired.
Fundraise for their cause
Your friend has become an active member in the autism community and to show support, you’ve decided to participate in the next autism walk. You’ve sent out your fundraising emails for her charity of choice which your friend receives that very night. Unbeknownst to her, you are walking for the cause that’s near and dear to her heart.
Can you imagine how great she’d feel? Your show of support would mean the world to her and her family.
Don’t take it personally when your friend says they can’t make it to an event
This is an important one. There are various reasons your friend has decided that she can’t or won’t attend an event you’re hosting. First and foremost, please don’t take it personally. She’s not snubbing you or dismissing your invitation, there’s a lot going on in her world.
If you’ve invited her to your child’s birthday party, there are a number of reasons why she won’t attend. Her child may not be able to tolerate birthday parties well. The sounds, sights and smells could overwhelm her child and therefore cause a meltdown — no one wants to deal with that.
Also, keep in mind that it isn’t always easy for autism parents to be around neurotypical children. I won’t speak for all autism parents, but I do know many who feel this way, including myself.
If you’ve invited her for dinner or a girls night out and she turns down your invitation, it may be because she can’t find a babysitter. Autism parents don’t just ‘get’ a babysitter on a whim, we need to find someone we know and trust, and this doesn’t come easy.
Refrain from being judgemental and hold back on unsolicited parenting advice
In comparison to raising a typical child, raising a child with autism is different and has its complexities. We face challenges and difficulties that you will never understand. We know you mean well, but even the smallest words of advice like “let him be” or “you should give him a timeout” or even “let him do what he wants, it’s fine” is infuriating.
When my child is screaming or what appears to be ‘misbehaving’ and you offer your opinion like “give him a timeout,” well, it just doesn’t work that way. If we ask for your help or advice feel free to chime in, if not, kindly keep your thoughts to yourself.
Honourable mention goes to: Don’t treat our children differently
Children with autism are not alien beings. You can’t catch autism nor can your children if they spend too much time with a child with autism. They’re not monsters. They’re not bad people. They have a different way of interpreting the world around them. Your patience and understanding mean a lot. Human beings with autism may be different, not less.