By Tara Wilson
We all know the saying: It takes a village to raise a child. It’s even more true when the child has special needs. If you’re one of the villagers, you probably know that your mama friend can use some extra support, but you’re not sure how to help. These are the things that our villagers do that help me raise my kids.
1. Small surprises
Gestures don’t need to be grand to make a huge difference. Learn your friend’s coffee order and surprise her at school drop-off. Or leave a plant on her doorstep to greet her when she gets home from a difficult therapy session. (Not my porch, though, because plants die when I even make eye contact.)
Fellow momstown mom Louise sent me a card reminding me how strong I am when I was having a hard time. I still look at it when I need a reminder that I can handle anything.
Another friend handed me two scones when I picked up my daughter from her house, with instructions to guard them with my life because they were for me and only me. They made the end of my day that much brighter. (Of course I now have a pretty serious scone addiction and five extra pounds to deal with, but it was worth it.)
2. Look for practical solutions
It’s not always possible for our whole family to attend social events, but the best invitations include sincere questions about how to make things easiest for Maggie, who has autism.
Ask your friend what she needs to make a visit successful. For instance, if the playroom is in the basement, it may be helpful to bring some toys up so your friend can watch her child while you visit.
Or see if it’s easier to go to her house. But bring the food, or insist that you order pizza. She probably wants to have you over, but doesn’t have time to clean up AND cook.
3. Stop by her house with the mom shuttle bus
Moms who swing by to grab my daughter, Grace, on the way to an activity are sanity-savers.
Taking Maggie with me to drop one of my other children off can be a nightmare. She doesn’t understand why she can’t stay, especially if it is somewhere fun. Pickup is tricky, too, if we have to wait more than a couple of minutes.
And if the child has a physical disability, with a wheelchair to load and unload, a five-minute errand can become a much bigger deal.
4. Don’t give up on her
Keep inviting her out, because she really does want to go, and will jump at the chance when she can swing it. And even when she can’t, it will brighten her day just to know that you want to spend time with her.
Let her know that it is okay to change her mind or to come at the last minute. Life with special needs kids can be unpredictable—we don’t know how our child will be that day, if we’ll be able to get away, or if we’ll be so exhausted that we can’t wear anything that isn’t made of flannel.
We really don’t want to look like a flake or like we don’t respect your time, so sometimes it is easier to turn down invitations, when really we mean yes with a star after it.
5. Be the paparazzi
Special needs parents often have to miss the school play, recital or special events because it’s not possible to bring their special needs child.
My husband and I take turns attending things, and last weekend I had to miss my daughter’s violin recital. His stone-age phone doesn’t record video, so another mom was thoughtful enough to record it for me to see later.
6. Give her couch time
When she looks like she is having a hard day, but is giving the polite, “I’m fine,” response, push her gently to talk to you.
We spend a lot of time putting on a brave face. Plus we worry that if we vent we will sound whiny or like we don’t love our child. Give your friend the okay that you’re a willing listener. We don’t usually need you to solve anything for us, just to be there and hand us tissues when we need them.
I’ve had friends chase me to my car after rough drop-offs at school because they knew I was not okay, and I felt so much better after a hug and a good cry.
7. Adopt her other kids
Siblings of kids with special needs tend to miss out on some of the activities that other families do. One of Grace’s friends is an only child and her family has Grace over regularly. They go out for ice cream or go bowling and it gives her a break from home.
8. Be funny
A sense of humour is my greatest survival strategy. Laughing releases endorphins, reduces the levels of stress hormones and can protect our immune systems. I also find that the more I can learn to laugh at what goes wrong—see the entire reason for my blog’s creation—the more resilient I am.
9. Learn about her child’s disability, then ask her questions
Spend some time with Dr. Google and read up. Then ask your friend questions about her child. There’s a saying in the autism community: “If you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met one child with autism.”
It means each child, and how they are affected by autism, is unique. The Google search will keep your friend from having to start explaining at square one, and will keep your eyes from glazing over as she uses lingo you’ve never heard of.
10. Offer to sell those cookies for her
Ask for concrete ways to help, rather than just “Let me know if you need anything.” Or suggest ways in which you’d like to help—it’s easier to accept an offer than to ask for something.
I would never ask a friend to unload a case of our Girl Guide cookies on her unsuspecting coworkers, but I absolutely took her up on it when she offered. She saved me from single-handedly eating 12 boxes of cookies. There ought to be a humanitarian award for acts of kindness like that!
Tara Wilson is an always-distracted mom of three tween girls. She writes about raising kids with autism and ADHD on her blog Don’t Lick the Deck, with a perspective of humour and imperfect mothering.
Editor's note: This post is the result of repeated badgering: "What do you wish people knew, Tara? What do your real friends understand that others don't?" and so on. In no way is it intended as a solicitation for scones. But if you have some for the writer, she probably wouldn't say no.