On a rainy day in December, three months pregnant with my fourth baby, I sat in our minivan and began to sob. Our oldest child, Anne had just been diagnosed with regressive autism. A very rare and gut wrenching type of spectrum disorder. On the car ride home I remember texting one of my closest friends with the news and she asked me, “Are you still able to homeschool?” The fact that my friend knew me so well, and knew that that was one of my biggest fears, showed me how much concern she had for me. Just that simple text to let me know that my concern was her concern meant so much.
There are many ways to support a family member or a loved one whose child has just received some pretty life changing news. As a friend it can be daunting and overwhelming. How do you support them, what do you say, how do you act around them? Here are a few ideas.
In my experience I was surrounded by the most amazing group of women. And if they weren’t there from the beginning, they have showed up for us now. My husband’s best friend since sixth grade called me the day after Annie's diagnosis and offered his support. This guy has been like a brother to me but we’ve never shared emotions and in that moment, he reached out to let me know that he and his wife would be there for us. He reassured me that we could count on them for anything. Even if you’ve never been super keen on sharing emotions with your friend, now is the time to show up. Let them know having a child with special needs changes nothing. You have been and will continue to be a support.
Ask about literature based around autism.
One of my best friends called me to ask if I knew of any child friendly books to read to her kids so that she could explain to her own children why Annie might do certain things that are not typical for her age or development. It might be awkward but it is also very important to teach your children about special needs. It creates compassion and empathy from a very young age and acceptance for people that are different.
Include them in the usual activities and playdates.
I have had to turn down plenty of invitations or trips to the parks because they just didn’t work for my situation. Having a child who elopes, snatches food from others, and is prone to frequent meltdowns just doesn’t bode well for certain activities like trips to the library, a new massive playground, or a solo trip to the zoo.
With that said, it’s nice to be asked. It’s nice to feel normal and the times when I’ve declined certain activities, I have had friends offer to take my other kids. That helps a lot because I cannot emphasize enough the guilt I have felt with saying no knowing that my other kiddos would have loved to go to the park or play at a friend’s house.
Drop off a treat just because.
I have struggled with bouts of depression before I had a child on the spectrum and to be honest, I still struggle with it today. The feelings of loneliness and isolation. That no one understands what you’re going through and on the truly bad days, the literal crippling anxiety. On those hard days, a friend texts me to let me know that they left a chai tea latte or a container of cupcakes from Whole Foods on my porch. Sugar and caffeine can’t take away the pain or cross of parenting a child with special needs but it shows that you have a whole tribe of people who will love you through it.
Pray for them.
It’s the simplest thing but it’s also the thing that I am really feel lifted up from. I’m a normal person who has been tempted by the devil more times than I’d like to admit. So when I can’t or won’t pray, I know my friends will. I know they will take this burden straight to the adoration chapel and ask for the help when I’m too despondent to ask for myself. And if you think it’s a little shallow to let your friend know you are praying for them, I can tell you it is the thing that keeps me humble. To know that someone is praying for you centers me and forces me to recognize my own weaknesses.
Offer to babysit.
I saved this one last because I have several close girlfriends whose families are as large as mine or rival my family size. I get that they have a ton on their own plates. So this one is for discernment. If you can, offer it. We had some neighbors move in behind us a few years ago and they have since become some of our dearest and closest friends. A few months ago, they kept insisting we let them babysit our kids so we could go on more dates. We usually ask my in-laws but they cannot do it all the time of course. I was worried and I struggled with the decision because I wasn’t sure how they would be able to deal with Annie. Finally I let it go and took them up on the offer and I just knew that Anne would be in solid hands. And I was right. And you know what else? By them showing us that huge sacrifice and gift offering, it has made me want to be a better and more supportive friend to my other girlfriends who don’t have a special needs child. We could all as mothers of littles use a break or time with our spouse. And it doesn’t have to be some super elaborate event. I asked my friend how they entertained Anne, and she said they did bubbles in the front yard, used chalk and ate pizza. Anne was a happy girl. My in-laws often play Irish music on occasional Sunday they watch Anne so we can stay at church a little longer and that’s all she needs to be content. However, I do realize that there are families whose child might require more care but I would encourage you to ask. It can’t hurt.
All this to say that my friends have shown up time and again in the simplest of ways and also in the times when I didn’t even know I needed the love. If you have a friend who has just been given the news that their child will have developmental delays or some sort of disability, call them and make sure they know you will show up. You will pray. You will love them and that child hard. That is all we need. We need to know that nothing will change. My biggest fear after Anne’s diagnosis was that my friends would disappear. That they wouldn’t know what to do or say and they would eventually just stop calling or texting. I am happy to say that never happened. They have endured guacamole smears on their beautiful glass doors, chased her down when she’s eloped from their front yard, quietly smoothed over the frosting on their child’s birthday cake after she took a taste, and smiled at her when she gets too comfortable with their faces. They love her because they love me and that’s the most important thing.