I dedicate this article to parents of children with autism and the friends and families who support them unconditionally. For most parents of children with autism, discovering their child has the disorder is an overwhelmingly traumatic experience. In addition to fears that their child may never fit well into a mainstream environment, the abundance of services that the child receives may dramatically alter the family’s entire way of life.
Although they may never say it, parents of children with autism may appreciate the following kinds of support:
Don’t offer advice if you lack knowledge or experience. While some parents may yearn to hear that what their child is doing is “typical,” others may get frustrated when they constantly hear this during family gatherings, play dates, etc. Making such statements too much may actually cause parents to feel atypical, regardless of your good intentions.
If a child with autism has a meltdown and the parent is reassured by Sally’s father, “Oh, Sally has meltdowns, that’s typical,” this can be misinterpreted as minimizing what the parents and their child with autism have gone through. With a possible 40 hours per week of intensive services for several years, trying to get their five-year-old child down to six meltdowns per day from twenty is simply not typical. That being said, although children with autism are described as developing atypically compared to other children, they can perform typical actions and display typical behavior. The goal is to help children with autism learn how to fit into a mainstream environment.
Don’t hold a grudge at a cancellation. Managing services for a child with autism is a full time job. It’s not like taking one child to school and then soccer, etc. It’s that, plus speech at one place, physical therapy and/or occupational therapy at another, special education services at home or school, and maybe more. It’s the 24/7 evaluation of the child’s development. If the parent of a child with autism has other children and/or another job, fitting in a social, adults-only date may be impossible, especially without a childcare provider who can manage their child. What those parents may need most is to know that they have friends and relatives who want to see them but are forgiving if it doesn’t happen. You could also show support by traveling to them instead of having them go to you.
Don’t judge a child by his poor behavior and his parents by their response. You may never know why the child at the restaurant is screaming. If he has autism, it may be caused by the sound of spilled dishes crashing to the floor or because the table he always sits at is unavailable or because the lighting just isn’t working for him that day. Don’t roll your eyes at those parents as they try to calm their child. Parents of children with autism need to take their children out in public to help them overcome their challenges or fears. It becomes much more trying for them to do that if they get icy stares from spectators.
It’s the little things that count. When a parent of a child with autism becomes ecstatic because their child builds a seven-block tower at the age of three, goes down the slide unassisted for the first time at four years old, or, at the age of five finally says, “Mama,” share her enthusiasm. These are milestones that most likely took a team—parents, educators and especially the child with autism—to accomplish.
Teach your child to be compassionate and accepting of others; lead by example. Do not talk down to a child with autism, whether he is your own or someone else’s. Like any other developing child, children with autism deserve respect and appreciation for their skills and talents, and deserve positive feedback in spite of their challenges. Children with autism do have feelings just like any other child. Do not take the role of teacher in his parents’ presence. Teach your own child through your kind words and disposition that every child is different and has something unique to offer a relationship, that all children are “special.”
All parents are faced with challenges throughout their child’s development; none need to be compared to others. Parents of children with autism know that they are not the only ones with challenges; however, it can be difficult for them to endure parents of typically-developing children who act as if they are.
Many parents of children with autism begin parenthood with a heavy heart and rigorous schedule of therapy…it is just not typical. Their dreams of taking their little ones on a whim for a carefree excursion are shattered with a diagnosis of autism. These parents fight hard for their child and for their family to experience a typical way of life, a goal that may include their child simply having at least one true friend to call their own.
You can be a “friend” to parents of children with autism by supporting them unconditionally, forgiving them for forgetfulness, tardiness, or lack of free time. You can be their friend simply by listening or being there when needed, just like you know they would do for you.
This article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #21.
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