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7 Ways To Support Families Through a New Autism Diagnosis

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I am an autism mom. This is a new statement for me. You see, we’ve only had our diagnosis for two months. Of course, the diagnosis came as no surprise, and yet, it still feels so new. I’ve just been officially inducted to the disability community with a life-long membership. As my husband and I are coming to terms with this, we have found that so many of our friends and family have reached out to us. They want to help.

Seriously, the outpouring of encouragement has been incredible. Our son has so many people in his corner, it is unreal. And as our friends and family rallied to make sure we knew we weren’t alone in this, I began to notice a trend. The families who knew exactly what we needed at that time were families who also had a child with a disability in their family. At the same time, the families who had no idea what we were dealing with had no idea how to help. As a concession to their helplessness, they would try to talk to us about their neighbor’s cousin’s kid who has autism; while we appreciated the attempt, I couldn’t actually say it was helpful.

So I’m going to outline a few ways that you can support families like mine, especially if their diagnosis is still new to them. If you know a family with a child on the spectrum, try giving one of these a try. Your efforts will not go unnoticed.

1. Encouragement and prayers.

My husband is the senior pastor at our church. Since the members are more like family to us, we shared the news of our diagnosis with them. A few days later, we started receiving cards, emails and Facebook messages. All of these seemed to arrive at exactly the right time. Each one was filled with kind words, reminding us that we are the perfect parents for our son and that we aren’t alone in raising him. I’ve always said we have a village raising our kids, but I never believed it more than when we were reading those letters.

2. Gift cards for restaurants.

Our culture shows love with food. When someone has a baby, is sick, grieving or in a rough patch of life, the go-to method of support is often to send food. And a recent life-long diagnosis for your child seems to fall into that “rough patch of life” criteria for some people. But there’s a special caveat to this particular situation. We know you mean well and that your home cooking could win first prize at the county fair, but autism and unfamiliar foods don’t jive. Many children with autism have food issues, meaning that any meal (no matter how delicious), will not be eaten by that child, so mom will still have to cook that night and do dishes. I suggest getting gift cards for the family instead of home cooking. That way, they can still have the night off on the night of their choosing at the place of their choosing, where everyone in the family can eat.

3. Offer respite.

Parents of kids with disabilities often struggle to find babysitters. Either they’re too strapped for cash (therapy isn’t cheap!), or their list of trusted individuals they can leave their kid with is too small. If you know that you are one of those trusted people who can watch their kid, offer! Set a few open dates aside and let them pick one. If you just leave an open-ended “call me if you want a break or a date,” then it won’t happen. And if you aren’t on that list of people who can care for their kid, set up a play date. That way, parents can be with their child and socialize at the same time! Feeling isolated is a common emotion for some parents of kids with disabilities and you can remedy that in this way.

4. Educate yourself.

I know not everyone can do all of these things I am listing. And we don’t want you to. We don’t want people constantly doing things for us. But It goes a long way in our relationship with you if you take some time to learn what autism is. We don’t need you to be an expert, we just need you to know. If you know, you can be more accepting. If you’re more accepting, you won’t accidentally belittle him for his behavior or us for our parenting. If you’re more accepting, your kids will be as well, and then they won’t tease or bully my son when he’s in school.

5. Be a quality friend.

Our lives are busy and unpredictable. Don’t assume that because we don’t hang out on weekends that we aren’t interested in your friendship. We get together when we can, and that’s not always often or with a lot of advanced notice. Don’t act surprised if we haven’t talked in a month, but we get too real and share some too-honest stuff with you about our lives at home. And don’t stop at just listening to us. We want to hear about your wins and your struggles in life, too! We want friends, not just shoulders to lean on.

6. Ask us.

If you or your kids have questions about my child’s behavior, just ask me about it. I wouldn’t mind at all if someone asked “Why does he cry so much?” “Why won’t he answer me when I call his name to talk to him?” “Why does he repeat things all the time?” I would, however, be pretty upset to learn that his peers have been laughing at him because they don’t understand. And please, ask us before you talk to my kid about his autism! Not all children know they have a diagnosis.

7. Invite us.

If you are a part of a supportive community (church, MOPS, coffee group, book club, etc.), extend an invitation to us. Yes, our lives are a little chaotic at the moment, but an opportunity to meet other people outside of our bubble could be just what we need. And if our circumstances at the moment keep us from being able to attend, the fact that you invited us means a lot!

This is clearly not an exhaustive list. There’s a million personalized ways to shower families and friends with love and support in the midst of a new diagnosis. Their confidence will grow as the reality of their “new” lives sets in. Having people like you in their lives to stand in the gap as they sort through it makes all the difference.

Getty image by patpitchaya

Originally published: April 22, 2018
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