But those looking on can feel helpless too…
In speaking with many friends of families with children who have Autism, they often aren’t sure what to do. Do they bring it up or not? Do you jump in and help out or will that offend their friend or family member? They often feel like they want to help, but like their friend, they do not even know where to start.
So, how can we help our friends, family, neighbors, and community members who have children with Autism? There are many things fellow parents can do to help their friends in need. The key will be to always put yourself in their shoes so you can try to avoid any missteps.
First things first: Always Ask For Permission Before Jumping In. Don’t Assume Anything.
This is really critical. Think of a time when you were trying to manage something. You had a plan, you had some resources, but the implementation of your plan may not have gone as expected. You knew what to do and were trying to get there…
Jumping into a situation like this may not only be annoying, it may actually be offensive.
For those who are on the outside, asking before jumping in to help is always a good rule of thumb. This really gives the parent the opportunity to either accept or decline your help, while still remaining in control. It is important to remember that this is their family, and as a parent you can appreciate that they are the decision makers.
Second: Unless You Are Experienced Working With Someone With Autism, Offer To Help In Other Ways.
Just like our first tip, if you are not directly involved with the child, you will want to take a more passive approach to helping the parent. This is for a couple of reasons. First, the child may not know you, so getting involved may make a stressful situation worse. Second, the parent will have more knowledge about the program and skills that are being taught. In this case, you can offer to help with things that don’t involve the child with Autism. Having those other To-Do’s taken care of could be a huge relief. What mom would not kill for dishes to be done and a load of laundry to be folded when we have a million other things on our To-Do lists.
Third: Be The Best Listener You Can Be.
Sometimes parents just need to vent. It could be about their child’s behavior, their stress, family craziness, work, etc. All of these are important for you to just listen to. Remember how good it feels to talk to someone and let it all out. You weren’t looking for a solution, but just needed someone to hear you. This may be especially true for your friends who are parents of children with Autism.
When you are with your friend, just listen to what she has to say. Are there themes to what she is talking about? If you listen closely enough, you may find something you can help with while making your friend feel heard and supported. This is very effective support for parents.
Four: Laughter Can Be The Best Medicine.
As simple as it seems, it really is true… Laughter is the best medicine. Those that take the time to laugh have better blood circulation to the brain, have more air flow to the body, release tension, and just feel better.
Friends who know a parent well can be really helpful here. They know their friend’s funny bones the best and can make them laugh at just about anything. You can offer a different perspective because you are outside of the situation. Sometimes, in the most stressful of situations, we can find something that is funny. I remember a parent I worked with who was stressed out when dealing with her child who smeared feces. From the parent’s perspective, it was terrible. It happened frequently and she felt that she was constantly cleaning the mess. Her daughter would often smear in the same places, making the paint begin to fade. Ironically, she hated the color of the room so one day we had a good laugh that she might actually get the opportunity to change the color as a result of all of her cleaning. Flipping the switch can reveal a different outlook for parents under stress.
Let’s look at some other situations and talk about ways moms can help other moms.
Autism can take over a mom’s life. There is so much going on with therapy, speech, doctors, school and behavior that the mom of a child with Autism often doesn’t have much time left for anything else. Here are some things you can do for close friends and family members who have children with Autism:
- Stay in touch. Keep calling her and stopping by even if she isn’t able to reciprocate like she used to. Don’t make a big deal out of your friendship being more one-sided, with you making more of an effort to reach out than she does. A regular phone call or visit from you will be a bright spot in her week, because she’ll know that you’re important to her.
- Take her out! Help her make arrangements to go to dinner and a movie with you. She may feel like she can’t leave her child, but the reality is that there is usually someone able to care for her child for a little while. Husbands, older siblings, grandparents, neighbors from her family–or yours–will often be more than willing to help out. Even a quick run through a drive-thru for lunch can help clear her head and give her a little break. A small change of scenery can do wonders for her spirits.
- Help her out. Offer to take her kids so she can have time to herself. You may not understand the depths to which she doesn’t get a break, but trust me; moms of children with Autism are always ‘on’. There isn’t much down time in their lives. Children with Autism may require a much higher level of vigilance than most people comprehend. If you can give your friend the occasional opportunity to turn ‘off’ and relax for a little while, it could mean a lot to her and her well-being.
- Work out with her. Again, it’s so difficult for moms of children with Autism to have any time to spend on themselves. Be willing to change exercise routines to accommodate your friend. Maybe in the past you’ve both gone to the gym together, but now she doesn’t feel she can take her child to the daycare there. Take the strollers out and go for a walk or a run instead. If you can be flexible, you’ll still get exercise and time with your friend, and she will too.
- Listen to her. Don’t pretend that everything is normal when it isn’t. Encourage her to open up and tell you what’s really going on in her life. She most likely is overwhelmed and doesn’t see an end in site. She is probably worried about her child’s future. You don’t need to fix things… just lend her your ear.
- Educate yourself. The more you understand Autism, the more you’ll be able to help your friend. Know what resources are available for her. She may be so busy she doesn’t have time to find out herself! Volunteer to go to school meetings with her as an advocate. You know her and her child well, and just having you there can be helpful. Our site, www.ThrivingWithAutism.com, is a great resource for anyone interested in gaining a better understanding of Autism.
With the rates of Autism on the rise, it is highly likely that you have been in the community and come into contact with someone diagnosed with Autism. You may have even seen a parent struggling with a child having a tantrum in the grocery store and wondering why they are not disciplining their child better.
What you may not have realized is that the child was not having a “typical” tantrum where they are not getting something that they want, like their favorite cereal, for example. It is different. It could be because there are too many people, it is too loud, too bright, or the routine of going down the aisle is not the same way it has been the 50 other times they have visited. It is a full-blown tantrum that must be managed by the parent, who may be exhausted and embarrassed.
The point is… it is not a “typical” tantrum you see from a toddler. It is more significant and caused by “something”. Please remember that the parents are not at fault, and they are doing their best to get through the day.
When you see a mom having problems, there are things you can do to help.
- Offer to help. If you see a mom at the mall and her son with Autism is having a difficult time, her toddler is trying to run away, and her infant is screaming in the baby carrier, offer to help. You can sing to the baby, corral the toddler, and give her time to help her child with Autism. (Remember to ask permission first.)
- Educate your children. With familiarity comes tolerance. My children have the unfortunate experience of living in a school district where kids with any kind of special needs are shipped off (ok, bused) to a ‘special’ school. As a result, when they first encounter a child in a wheelchair, or with Down Syndrome, or anything at all atypical, their first reaction is to point and stare.As a Special Education teacher, this drives me crazy! I really wish every child went to their neighborhood school. Help your own children to know that children with Autism may act a bit differently than they do, but they are a lot of fun, too! They will have things that interest them. Help your children to find some common ground and discussion points with children with Autism in your community. Above all, help your children have opportunities to have interactions with kids from all walks of life. It will help build their understanding and compassion for all kids, not just ones who look and act like they do.
When you think one more time about it, they have nothing to do with having a child with Autism and everything to do with really being nice to one another. Reach out and lend a hand! Everyone will benefit.
For more Autism support and information, please contact Andrea Richardson at www.ThrivingWithAutism.com.