Recently we celebrated the birthday of my youngest son Zach, who has autism. Families and friends from both sides of his genetic tree came to usher in his last year in single digits, while his almost teenaged older brother with severe autism, Justin, looked on.
All in all, the event went well, with my littlest love thrilled with his gifts and sad all the hoopla and his four parties were over.
Yes, I said four parties.
I often get reflective after these birthday parties for my sons, am prone to remembering years when things hadn’t gone so well. There was the year we tried to keep Justin on the computer when Zach was opening his presents, which failed miserably, resulting in meltdowns for both. At another party, my husband and I ended up having to carry Justin up to his room for some action I’ve totally forgotten, whisking him past a dozen or more suddenly hushed adults.
Things have not always remained constant at our parties, but one thing has remained consistent with both our families and friends since Justin’s diagnosis12 years ago, something for which I will always be eternally grateful.
There are many other things which, looking back, I am eternally grateful for, and if you’re reading this and are a family member or a friend of a parent whose child has just received an autism diagnosis, I hope you take a minute and peruse. My husband and I were very fortunate with the way the people in our lives reacted.
1. Don’t judge.
You may not understand why your friend/family member is handling her child’s meltdown/insomnia/refusal to eat/need to line everything up in the way she is. Trust me, she knows better than anyone what to do, and she knows her child best. Only offer suggestions if she asks for them.
2. Offer to help, and mean it.
She may be so overwhelmed she might not even know where to start asking for help. Give her time. She may need you to go on a doctor’s visit with her, or watch her child while she takes siblings to another appointment. She may just need to get out of her house for a few hours and take a break. Whatever she needs, try to be there for her, and
be there multiple times.
3. Initially, don’t send her research.
Trust me, she will be logging in a few million hours on the Internet. Hold onto whatever you find until things have calmed down a bit and you feel she can be receptive to your help.
4. Never compare her child to your second cousin’s neighbor’s high school sweetheart’s child with autism.
Autism comes in many shapes and sizes. Just because somebody’s child talked at 7 does not mean your friend’s child will. Comparisons are odious.
5. Don’t tell her he/she will grow out of it.
Autism is a lifelong neurological disorder. There are challenges and differences across the spectrum. Respect that.
6. Make them a meal.
Take the time to bring them dinner if you live nearby. Random acts of kindness cheered up my family immensely in the months following our sons’ diagnoses. They were bright spots in our day when facing meltdowns, sleeplessness, and mounds of paperwork for early intervention and school placements. Make the effort.
7. If you know of anyone with a child with autism who might be a positive support for your friend, hook her up.
The key word here is “positive.” She may need someone to vent to, who may even have suggestions and referrals to services and people who can make her life easier.
8. If the family needs money and you can help, offer it.
Insurance reform has helped immeasurably in covering autism therapies, but there may be a lag time before they kick in. Offer to fill in the gap if you can.
9. Just listen.
Don’t share with your friend that your neurotypical child had sleeping/eating/behavioral issues, too. You have no idea how long your friend/family member might be dealing with these challenges. Just be there as a sounding board.
10. Get both parents out.
Find a way for them to enjoy a peaceful dinner or a movie once a month. It can help both them as individuals and their marriage immensely. They may protest at first, but they likely need it whether they know it or not.
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