Most of the time, parenting a child with special needs is similar to parenting a neuro-typical child. We have peaks and valleys, but I’ve noticed they are often higher and sometimes lower than those of my child’s peers. I want my child to be accepted by society and make friends, and I’m starting to realize I need the exact same things for myself.
A “special needs mom” is a broad term for a parent of a child with a disability. Recent research suggests special needs parents shoulder PTSD symptoms and higher levels of stress. Social support may reduce the impact of the stress felt by parents of children with disabilities.
Here are four ways you can support a friend with a child with special needs.
1. Include us.
We may have to say “no” nine out of 10 times, but please keep inviting us to wine tastings, jewelry parties, and moms’ nights out. Being able to find child care is extra challenging because our children may require more care than most other kids a neighborhood high school-aged babysitter meets. When I get out and surround myself with laughter, it helps with feelings of isolation. It helps me know I belong even with the differences among our children. Just like our kids, we moms are more alike than different.
2. Include our child.
We need you, our friend, to help us facilitate friendships between our children. Not all friends’ kids mesh well, but when you’re around each other often, acceptance builds among children. Your kids may not attend the same schools as ours, so you may not see that our child isn’t invited to most birthday parties, struggles with making friends, or is bullied. Friendships among peers are a fundamental part of being happily integrated into society. Research tells us it’s a win-win, as your child will likely be more empathetic and accepting of people’s differences. We are always thinking about the future, and we appreciate it when you make a point to include our child.
3. Ask questions; never assume.
Most children with a disability fall within a spectrum, so one label does not always cover the range. National organizations are excellent resources, but asking questions and engaging in conversation about a diagnosis and its challenges are most helpful. It’s also OK to ask how best to talk about a disability with other children. Lastly, it’s helpful to ask about language regarding our child’s special needs. For example, it is not acceptable to call my daughter a “Downs girl,” “Downs child,” or “Downs person.” The preferred terminology is “child with Down syndrome.” Some parents feel differently about person-first language, as it can be part of that person’s identity, such as a Deaf person. Some adults prefer to be labeled Autistic, but this varies, so always feel free to ask questions.
4. Show us grace.
As in all friendships, we sometimes need you to give us the benefit of the doubt. What may look like an overly emotional and dramatic mom can actually be a mom trying to survive days of no sleep due to a medical crisis, or a mom who fears losing health insurance, as it’s hard to find flexible work when juggling illness, appointments, and such. Like every other friend, we just need a person to vent to sometimes. When you try to put yourself in our shoes, your empathy shines through. Having a child with special needs has taken me to my most vulnerable moments in life, but I also have an increased sense of other’s needs, and my emotional quotient is a super power. Which all means I will be the first one to support you regardless of my plate being full. I will text you inappropriate GIFs that crack you up, and I will know when to show up with wine, a hug, and nothing more.
We face an element of isolation while parenting a child with special needs. We operate in a world in which we beg others to accept our child, so venturing out to foster friendships when our child may have a tendency to tantrum, push/hit, or stim is even harder. Out of necessity, we are often flexible, compassionate, and resilient—characteristics you may look for in a friend—and we are so grateful to you for walking this path with us.