Travelling around the country to speak at conferences, I meet a lot of autism moms. It doesn’t matter which state I’m in - the accents and the faces may be different - the stories are the same. Life raising a child with autism can be lonely as the autism mom doesn't have the time she used to keep up with her social connections.
To a relative or friend, things seem to change when a child with autism is a part of the picture. It’s harder to find time together, and your kids aren’t really sure how to play with each other. If you are a next door neighbor, you may have seen some strange behaviors and heard weird sounds coming out of the house.
In any case, it is hard to know what to say, think or do to be supportive without getting in the way. These tips from my book What is Autism? Understanding Life with Autism or Asperger’s can help you stay connected with the autism Moms you know:
- If you were good friends and in contact often before the diagnosis, don’t change. Your friend may not have as much time to see you in person, but you can stay connected by phone. Perhaps they will need to see you more and need a shoulder to lean on more often.
- Stay connected by continuing to invite your friends or relatives who have a child with autism. It may not be as easy for them to get out, but invite them to your party. If they can't make it, they'll let you know. If they can, they'll be there.
- Find out a little bit about autism. Go to a few websites of reputable autism organizations to get some more information of what autism is all about.
- Listen more than you advise. It is tempting with all the autism news stories in the paper to share everything you hear but resist the urge. Your friend has probably heard it all. Instead, offer him an ear, as well as some practical help.
- Parents of kids with autism don't need more information, but they often could use a break or some support. Is there some way you can help? Most parents could use respite – some time off. If you can offer to watch the child with autism for a few hours. If that’s not possible, maybe you could look after the typically-developing siblings. Whatever you offer to do, follow through.
- Every child with autism is different because autism is a spectrum disorder. Ask your friend or relative : what are your child's challenges, and how can I make it easier when he comes to visit at my house? What should I look out for, avoid, or do to make his visit (and yours) easier?
- Don’t ignore the child with autism because you are unsure how to connect with him. Follow his lead and show interest in whatever he is doing- even if it is stimming with a piece of string when you are visiting. Show him something he might like. Also, talk to him (and about him if he is in the area) as if he can understand everything. Even if he can’t talk, he could be understanding everything.
- If you or your children are having a hard time figuring out how to interact with the autistic child when they come to visit, ask for specific advice for specific issues (what can I give Charlie to eat?). Explain to your children about your friend’s child, but if the parents have not divulged the diagnosis to their child, then do not mention the autism, just the behavior (Charlie has food allergies so he can’t eat the foods we do).
The autism mom you know needs you now more than ever, and anyway you can continue to be there for her is much appreciated.