Seven Ways To Strengthen A Special Needs Friendship
“Maria and Toni are going to be so surprised when they come over. I can’t wait to see the expression on their faces when I tell them the truth.” They think we’re having a barbeque in my backyard but it’s not true. In reality, I’m treating them to a special lunch at our favorite Italian restaurant in honor of World Friendship Day.
If you’ve never heard of this day, you’re probably not alone. I recently learned myself that the US Congress proclaimed this holiday way back in 1935. Since then, World Friendship Day is celebrated every year on the first Sunday in August. Not that I need a special occasion to honor and celebrate two of the most important people in my life, but Sunday, August 5 will be a perfect opportunity.
As I look back on all the years we’ve known each other, and the good and difficult times we’ve gone through, I’m so grateful Maria, Toni and I are still together. They’re more than friends; they’re part of my family.
And yet, sometimes I still feel bad that it took me so long to honestly open up to them about my struggles with my child’s autism. For months after the diagnosis, I kept so much inside.
The shame, fear, pride, embarrassment, and sadness got the best of me many times. But once
I shared what was going on with me, a huge weight was lifted, and I felt so much better and stronger.
Friends: The Irreplaceable Support System
Special needs parents often feel lonely in their journey. But it’s important to remember that you don’t have to be alone. The support of others around you can help you make it through the hard days, aid you in making good decisions, and provide the physical and emotional breaks we all need now and then.
Friendships are like tea bags—you don’t know how strong they are until you’re in hot water! When the chips are down and times are tough, you find out who is really there for you. And you’d be surprised how many people want to be there for you.
1. Don’t Isolate Yourself
Your friends and family don’t like or love you less because you have a child with special needs. In fact, they probably admire and respect you more than ever after seeing how difficult it can be to raise a child with a disability.
And the people who really love you are not offering pity, they are giving empathy—they are putting themselves in your shoes, as far as they can, and trying to figure out how they can help.
Don’t shut these people out of your life, and don’t shut yourself in. Reach out, and you will find many hands waiting to take yours.
Spending time with those who love you is good for any person, but particularly important for those in stressful and potentially isolating situations.
Your friends and family are lifelines to the world around you; you can’t afford to cut those lines and push yourself into a lonely corner.
2. Express Yourself Without Fear of Judgement
Give yourself permission to vent, cry and blow off some steam with those closest to you. Your family and friends aren’t going to judge you for what you say or do. All they want is to provide support, in whatever way that’s best for you. Friends and family may not be able to solve your problems or even offer solutions. But they can offer a friendly face, an open ear, a reassuring hug or shoulder to lean on, which may be all you need to make it through the day.
3. Surround Yourself With Positivity
Choose to spend time with people who make you feel at ease. If certain friends or family members are insensitive and make you feel uncomfortable by staring, making hurtful remarks or over-reacting to your child’s behavior, don’t associate with them. Sometimes, it isn’t only our kids who display inappropriate behavior! Maintain positive relationships with those who understand your situation, child’s condition and support your family.
4. Ask For Help When You Need It
Unless you have a secret identity and a cape in your closet, you’re not a superhero. And without superpowers, no parent of a child with special needs is going to make it through the rest of their lives without help.
Of course, we all have our pride and want to be able to stand on our own feet, take care of our families and do things our way.
But there are going to be times when all the challenges and stress get on top of you, and you just need an extra pair of hands to help you through. There’s no shame in asking for and accepting help. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not a sign of weakness. It’s actually a sign of strength and courage to share your needs with others.
So call your best friend and ask him/her to pick up some groceries for you at the supermarket the next time they go shopping. Or ask your neighbor to meet your child’s bus if you have to leave work later than usual.
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5. Have Some Fun
Get together with your friends and family. Laugh, be playful and have a good time. Go shopping or bowling. Visit a museum or attend a concert. Take advantage of the summer weather and go fishing, to the beach or have a picnic.
The point is to spend quality time with people you enjoy without thinking about kids, jobs, household bills or doing laundry. It will do everyone a world of good to take a mini-break from the daily pressures and responsibilities of life.
6. Remember No One Has A Perfect Life
Despite what you may see on the social media accounts of your friends and family, nobody has an ideal life. There may be a different reality behind those picture-perfect smiles and poses. Keep in mind, whether it’s a millionaire actor, a Fortune 500 executive or a salesperson at your local department store, everyone has problems. You may be dealing with your child’s disability publicly, but others may be handling personal problems privately. A relative may be secretly agonizing over a teenage son’s drug addiction while a friend may be depressed because of a job loss. No one escapes life’s ups and downs.
7. Schedule Some “Me Time”
When friends and family ask what they can do to help, you can do yourself a huge favor by asking for one thing — a few hours of “me time.” When was the last time you had a manicure, shot some pool with your buddies, or simply lingered over a cup of coffee without worrying that you have to rush home?
Take full advantage of these kind gestures and opportunities. Do something that you truly enjoy, or that you simply never get the opportunity to do in your busy life. And don’t feel guilty for a having a good time, even if it’s for a few hours. A bit of enjoyment is good for you and your whole family. You’ll feel better, and your friend or family member will know they’re doing something that really makes a huge difference in your life.
The simplest way of arranging this kind of “personal break time” is usually to ask your friends and family to come and take care of, or play with, your child in your home. Familiar surroundings will make it easier for your child and wonderful caregiver.
You’ll know that your child is safe and well-cared for and that you don’t have to pay for childcare. Does life get any better than this?
A Special Lunch, Filled With Gratitude
Well, I just called the restaurant manager and confirmed our lunch reservation. I also ordered a surprise, celebratory cake for dessert. The inscription says Forever Friends. I think that says it all!
Deanna Picon is the founder of Your Autism Coach, LLC, which provides personalized guidance, comprehensive support programs and seminars for parents of special needs children. Her personal mission is to empower parents as they advocate for their children while balancing productive work and family lives. She received her BA in psychology and BA in broadcast journalism from Syracuse University. Deanna is a parent of a non-verbal, young man with autism. She is the author of The Autism Parents’ Guide to Reclaiming Your Life, available from Amazon and through her website.
This article was featured in Issue 78 – Back to School Success