It’s the last few days of Autism Awareness Month and I wanted to take this last Tuesday Tip of the month to write about how to help your friends who are parents of kids with autism. The latest CDC report states that 1 in 68 children are diagnosed with autism, so if you don’t have a friend who is an autism mom or dad, you probably will at some point. So let’s say your friend (or family member) has a child who has been diagnosed. You’re a good friend, and so you want to help, right? But it can be hard to know what to do or say. Here is what I, as an autism momma, would say to anyone who wants to know what they can do to help:
- Please be careful with what you say. If you want a fantastic list of ideas about what to say (or not say), check out this phenomenal article here. I read this recently and it is spot-on. If you’re really struggling with the right words, all you really need to say is, “I’m here for you.” Autism is such a lonely road and it feels so much better when people say that to me.
- Please be respectful of our diet and/or interventions. We are a special-diet, medical-intervention (in addition to therapy) family and it has worked wonders for us. But I have had people roll their eyes and sigh heavily right in front of me when I bring up the diet. I’ve lost friends because they don’t agree with how we treat our son. And that hurts. The thing is, I don’t do these things for kicks. I do them because they help my son. Luckily, I also have fantastic friends and family members who go out of their way to accommodate my son’s needs. I don’t expect other people to do things (like provide special diet food) for us. I send my son to school, parties, and any gatherings with his own food. It makes me happy when people respect that. If you want to go the extra mile for your friend, ask what their kiddo can/can’t eat and try to accommodate them when possible.
- Please don’t stop inviting me to do things. The schedule in an autism family tends to be very busy and hectic. We have autism therapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy, social skills groups, doctor’s appointments and school to balance. In the years since my son was diagnosed, I’ve had to turn down countless invitations, simply because they conflicted with our schedule. But even if I am unable to come, please keep inviting me anyway. It makes me feel good to know that my friends care enough to invite me to do things with them, even when I can’t always go. And if you can plan things far enough in advance so that your friend can make arrangements to attend, that’s even better!
- Please come play with us. Kids with autism need to be around typical children and unfortunately, sometimes those opportunities to be around typical kids are few and far between. I love it when my friends and their kids make the effort to get together with us. It is not only good for me to be around my friends, but it is fantastic for my son to be around typical children. And no, they won’t catch autism from being around my son! (Believe it or not, there are people who actually believe that!)
- Please acknowledge my son’s progress and our hard work. All parents need support and encouragement, don’t we? As an autism momma, it really makes my day when someone acknowledges how well my son is doing and/or the work we’re putting into helping him. Every now and then I’ll get a comment like, “I think your son was misdiagnosed, don’t you?” which really gets under my skin. While I appreciate the acknowledgement that he looks nearly typical in many ways, those comments irk me because they disregard all the difficult times we’ve been through, all of my son’s hard work, and all the time and energy (and money) we’ve poured into his treatment. Want to know what I love? Hearing things such as, “Wow! Your son is doing so well! I’ve seen such a difference in him over the past year!”
- Please get involved. As an autism parent, it’s really hard when you feel like the rest of the world doesn’t care. If your friend asks you to sign a petition, or put on a blue porch light for autism awareness or support their autism walk, please try and do it if it is within your power. If not, please acknowledge their request with something such as, “I’m so sorry I can’t donate to your autism walking team this year, but please ask me again next year.” Nothing feels worse than feeling like your requests for support are being ignored, but nothing gives me such a boost as when I know my friends care enough to support our causes. If you really want to go the extra mile, consider enrolling your child as a typical peer in activities for special needs children. Over the years we’ve attended play groups, schools, and sports groups for special needs kids and they’ve all had some typical kids enrolled. The first year my son was in school, he was in an autism classroom. That class had two typical children enrolled and I am forever thankful to the parents of those two kids for caring enough to send their children to help mine. Now that my daughter is finally old enough to attend some of these programs herself, I am excited to finally be able to return the favor and enroll her as a typical peer for other kids.
- Please take me out for some “me” time. It’s easy for me to get all wrapped up in my own little world, but I definitely need to be pulled out of it sometimes. I’ve had friends who have noticed when I’m down and have practically kidnapped me to take me out for chocolate shake and a good talk. Those gestures have meant the world to me and have sometimes saved my sanity when I’ve needed it the most!
- Most importantly, please just continue to be you—my friend. We are friends for a reason. We’ve already been through good times and bad together and that’s what’s most important to me. Just knowing you’re there for me when I need it means the world to me. Please continue to stick by me and just be who you already are, because that’s why we’re friends in the first place.