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friend-special-needIt’s Friendship Month, and I wanted to spend some thought on a place that’s near and dear to my heart: how to be a friend to the parent of a child with special needs. Special needs encompasses a lot of different issues, like autism, mental illness, and ADHD. Parents of kids with a particular special needs talk amongst ourselves a lot because we get each other, we share a common context. But none of us are an exclusive club. I was talking to a friend who has a child with Down’s Syndrome yesterday, and she told me she and her husband were aware of their child’s condition well before he was born. I’ve been processing that ever since. We don’t have a prenatal test for autism…we hardly have regular diagnosis until after the toddler years…Still, there we were, a Down’s mom and an Autie mom, hanging out, sharing and comparing notes. It was great.

Parents of Typical Kids
Then there are the parents of my typical son’s friends. Those parents have typical kids. They like talking about peewee baseball, penmanship, new cars, fishing…sometimes it’s so refreshing to talk about something, well, else. They like to go to parks and museums, take business trips, get stuck in traffic. You know what? I do, too. Let’s talk about that.

Special Needs Parents Can Become Isolated
Parents of children with special needs don’t get out much. Finding babysitters is hard, but keeping them is harder. Some of us give up trying. So we don’t socialize much with people our own age. We can turn in on ourselves (ironically, we can exhibit the same asocial tendencies our kids do, losing touch with people we spent time with before having kids, college buddies, siblings, parents).

Be a Good Friend to a Special Needs Parent
So, here are some ideas on how to be a good friend to a special needs parent.

  1. Realize that we are probably sleep-deprived and anxious pretty much all the time. But we can be bribed easily with a cookie, a hug or chocolate. And a kind word or a phone call (even if it ends up being a voice message) is like oxygen. Even if we aren’t able to express our appreciation (because something just fell on the floor and shattered), know that we feel it.
  2. Understand that we don’t mean to hang up on you. There are times when we just can’t talk, and it’s too complicated or embarrassing to explain over the phone. I have a fellow Special Education mom who just puts bookmarks in our conversations, jots down a quick note, and picks up the next week where we left off. I appreciate that because we both know there are times when a conversation ends with, “Oh no. Oh, I gotta go. Call you later.” *Click* It’s the way of it. It’s nothing personal. But understanding and that it’s nothing personal is important if you can be the friend of an autie parent.
  3. Despite what it sounds or looks like, we have really good memories. We are constantly multitasking, which makes us look scattered, but it’s an organized chaos. We have to keep the contents of the fridge and the bathroom, appointment schedules, therapy sessions, sibling activities and sanity all going at the same time. But we do it. And we are paying attention. It might take a minute to process, but we are paying attention.
  4. We need a break sometimes. We’re not good at asking for help, but we need it as much as anybody. And it’s not always the help of a trained ABA therapist we need. Sometimes we just need a reality check. We get used to parents with typical kids (or adults without kids) not understanding our vocabulary (which is as peppered with acronyms as most IT professions). And yes, we spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to be the best advocates for these relentless people we made. But it’s nice to be invited for coffee or lunch to chat about sports or the weather or new cars or whatever. We can talk about other things, too.

In the end, I hope the takeaway is that we all need compassion. Whether the parent of a child with special needs or the friend of that parent, sometimes we feel things we don’t have time or brain cells to convey. But we should make the effort on both sides because we all need friends. We are all in this together.

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Kate Dran is a user experience analyst, professional writer, autism advocate and parent of 2 beautiful and perfect sons, one with autism, one developing typically. She founded Adaptive Solutions Analysis, LLC , a private consulting firm that provides usability assessments and user experience analysis for adaptive technologies that support the cognitive, sensory and motor development needs of K-12 students with autism. She believes that autism-friendly user experience is human-friendly user experience.