If you have a friend with an autistic child, you might not realize the impact you can have on their lives. As the mother of two autistic children myself, I’m here to lay it out for you and help you be the most glorious gal pal around.
1) When we share a story with you sharing the challenges of dealing with behavioral issues, please do not start rattling off how your child has issues too. I’m sure they do, but really…pick another time and we will support the hell out of you. For this moment, just listen. When we say meltdown we don’t mean a little tizzy, we mean three hours of screaming, violence and bodily fluids.
2) Don’t change plans. Here’s a little known fact, Autistic children do not tolerate change well, generally speaking. A common tactic for assisting autistic children with daily life is called front loading. This means that we generally have either a verbal or visual schedule that we use to navigate each day for our kids. If we have plans together, you better believe that kid knows about it, and altering the plan is going to have consequences. If your response to this is “Well, all children are like that”, please go back to #1, because you need to pay better attention.
3) Offer to babysit. Now this step isn’t for everyone; but if you feel up to it, it will probably earn you a place in the gal pal hall of fame. This might sound melodramatic, but it’s been suggested that the stress level of mothers with autistic children is “similar to combat soldiers”. I can tell you from personal experience, that having an afternoon to nap, get a pedicure or even just take a shower can be incredibly uplifting. Here’s a link to a wonderful piece on KidsHealth.org with some advice about preparing for this particular life adventure.
4) Here’s a really easy one. Just be understanding. We will seem flaky and antisocial at times. Our kid might hit your kid in a moment of over stimulation. We might cancel plans, despite my earlier point of you not doing that. We may cry unexpectedly. Or we might not return your calls for days on end. Please know, we wish we had hours to sit and gab with you. We wish that we didn’t have to miss your birthday cocktail party. We wish our child wasn’t so confusing to your children. The simple fact is, our life is not like your life and we need you to understand that. Know this, if you stick with us through our craziness, we will love you forever.
5) Lastly, teach your children about autism. If our kids are going to play together, you really should educate them in an age appropriate way. To simply say “he’s just different” or to instruct your child to “just be nice” isn’t enough. Kids are people and people need to understand what’s going on. Here’s a link to a really great booklet made for kids about being friends with autistic children. According to Autism Speaks 1 in 68 children in the United States has Autism Spectrum Disorder. So I think it would behove everyone to teach their kids about it.
In closing, being a parent is a roller coaster for everyone. Being the parent of a child with autism can feel more like the Tower of Terror all day long. Don’t get me wrong, there are amazing moments of course, but there are many moments where I have felt like I literally could not make it one more day without help. Thankfully, I had a handful of generous and understanding people in my life who helped me. Now you are prepared to be that person for someone you love, too.