5 Ways Friends Can Support Parents of Children on the Autism Spectrum
I know many of us are probably glad to have another Halloween behind us and don’t really want to revisit the holiday for another 360 days (or in three days when our kids start planning what they’re going to be for next Halloween). Bear with me, though. This story does include Halloween, but it isn’t really about Halloween at all.
My husband Jon and I often work opposite schedules, and Halloween 2016 happened to fall on a night when I was parenting solo. I mentioned this to my friend, Rachel, who immediately invited me and my three kids over to eat dinner and trick-or-treat with them.
About halfway through dinner, I could tell my daughter KBear, who is on the autism spectrum, was getting overstimulated. About three blocks into trick-or-treating, she said her legs hurt. About three-and-a-half blocks into trick-or-treating, she said she wanted to go back. My 11-year-old and 4-year-old were nowhere near being done.
Before I even had a second to fret about what to do, my best friend came to the rescue! I’m pretty sure Rachel was wearing a cape and there was a superhero anthem playing in the background as she leapt in and calmly asked KBear, “Would you be OK going back with me? I think the baby’s had enough, too, and we can just go back and relax.” KBear slowly nodded her head and journeyed off with my friend. My shoulders dropped, my mind eased, and my boys and I carried on and stayed out as long as they wanted to.
I remember the first time KBear had a meltdown in front of Rachel. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen or how my friend would respond. I heard her son ask questions and express uncertainty about what was going on. And then I heard my friend calmly explain to her son, in a nonjudgmental and totally compassionate way, that KBear has some differing wiring that can make it difficult to control her body and emotions sometimes. I heard my friend help her son relate by bringing up examples of moments when he had felt out of sorts or overloaded. I heard my friend calmly ask what she could do, what would be helpful, and I saw her patiently sit with calmness, acceptance and love. She occasionally asked if there was anything she could do and then refocused attention off KBear’s meltdown by quietly entertaining the other kiddos. After the meltdown, my friend hugged me, told me I’m a good mom, and reinforced that she’s here for whatever I need.
I am tearing up now as I write about it. Why? Because I feel she was perfectly supportive. Because so many people respond differently. Family, friends and strangers oftentimes back away. Occasionally, they’ll stare or say rude comments. Sometimes they’ll give unsolicited advice. And I get it. Many people don’t know how to respond. Most often I don’t feel like I know how to respond, and I do this every day. How can I expect other people to understand and know what to do?
I didn’t realize just how much I was missing the type of support my friend provided until she gave it to me. I know my family and friends are there and would do anything to help, but I didn’t even know what would be helpful to ask for. They regularly ask what they can do, or tell me they don’t know what to do. And until Rachel intuitively showed me, I couldn’t put words to what I needed.
So I’ll use Rachel’s beautiful examples to highlight what I, and possibly other parents, would find helpful in the midst of a meltdown.
1. Respectfully taking initiative. One of the things I appreciate most is Rachel respects my role as the parent and follows my lead as I’m dealing with KBear, but she simultaneously steps in to simply do the other things that need attention. She entertains the other kids. She continues making the snack. She provides quiet space. In the midst of managing a meltdown, my mind is working fast to try to address safety and emotion regulation. I cannot always think beyond the immediate risk to provide direction for all the other stuff. It can be helpful when others just take the lead on those.
2. Occasionally asking if there’s something I need. She doesn’t ask too often, which I find helpful given my state of my mind, as described above, but every once in a while I’ll hear a simple, “Anything you need?” It reminds me my daughter and I are not in it alone. It gives me the opportunity to ask for something we’d need without having to take my full attention away from my daughter.
3. Validation. As parents of children on the autism spectrum, we sometimes live in high stress. We often need to simultaneously plan everything out and be prepared to have all our plans derailed as behaviors occur. To be seen, to be heard, to be validated, I’ve found, can be so incredibly healing.
4. Validation. No, this isn’t a typo. We need validation of the challenges, but we also need validation that we’re doing a good job. It can be so easy to doubt ourselves as parents. And something that worked yesterday may not work today. We can easily feel like we’re failing or completely screwing up. Hearing from my friend that I’m a good mom, hearing from my family that I am patient and compassionate with my daughter — these are things I cling to on the days when my thoughts tell me otherwise.
5. Eyes filled with compassion and acceptance. I feel this is by far the most helpful thing. I’ve found fear, uncertainty, worry and concern can all start to look like judgment, whether intended or not. Eyes that turn away because they don’t want to stare can feel like avoidance, judgment, or like we’re all alone, or that we’re too much for others. Looking the meltdown square in the face, seeing the people who are in pain underneath the behaviors, and showing compassion and straightforward acceptance helps set my mind at ease. It helps me be able to focus entirely on my daughter and my own reactions instead of getting distracted by potential judgment. It can create an environment of love, which girds me up to respond with love, which I think is far more effective in any meltdown situation.
And here’s the deal, it is necessary for us parents to have this. It is necessary for our own well-being to have at least one or two people who can provide these things. It is necessary to feel supported, understood, like part of a team. And sometimes, we can simply be blessed with people in our lives — like Rachel — who do these things naturally. More often, we may need to teach people what to do. Most often, loved ones want to help; they just don’t know how. And if you take the time to teach them, to assertively ask for your own needs to be met, you just might be able to enjoy trick-or-treating next year, too!
Image via Thinkstock.
A version of this post originally appeared on The Fringy Bit.
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