A diagnosis of autism is a life changing event. For children with autism and their families, days become instantly filled with a multitude of therapy appointments and an all-consuming focus on their diagnosis and progress.
As a friend or family member of someone with autism, you may wish to offer social support. Below are a few good ways to get started.
Don’t be shy, reach out.
Children with autism spectrum disorder and their families are often more isolated from social and community events. Don’t wait for them to seek you out. Extend invitations to them to be involved in your life and for you to be involved in theirs.
Let them know that you understand they cannot accept all offers but the door is always open. This can prevent them from feeling pressure to say yes to events that do not suit their child yet still feel confident they will be included in your tribe going forward.
Get to know the child.
Begin with an open mind that allows you to see beyond the label of their child’s unique personality.
Kids with autism are kids first! For these children, a lack of social understanding can lead others to assume they are not interested in interacting.
It is a myth that kids with autism do not want to be social; however, it is true that getting to know someone new can take practice. Follow their parent’s example in the best ways to communicate, as this can be a good starting point while you’re getting to know them better. Don’t feel discouraged if they do not say hi, acknowledge you or respond to your attempts to interact initially. Over time you will become a friendly, familiar face!
Invite them over to play.
If you have children, offer to host playdates. Take the initiative to ask your friend what their child enjoys and offer to make accommodations that would make playtime easier.
Many open-ended, outdoor activities such as bubbles, water play or swinging can typically be enjoyed by all. Include your own child in the process of planning fun things to do, choosing which activities they would like to have available and explaining what their friend may like. Use this as an opportunity to model acceptance for your child. Check out these excellent tips from Sesame Street on how to encourage young children to be a friend to a child with autism.
When suggesting a play date, let your friend know they are welcome to stay as little or as long as they would like and your invitation is open should they need to decline.
Offer time alone.
Having a child with special needs can be overwhelming at times. Many parents do not have family or friends who know their child well enough to offer childcare. Becoming a familiar face to their child can allow you to offer periods of respite, however brief. Even an opportunity to run errands alone can go a long way!
The Michael R. Boh Center for Child Development helps children overcome challenges, develop their unique talents and reach their full potential. Learn more.
Be a listening ear.
Ask how they are doing and be available to talk or not talk about their child’s diagnosis. Some parents may appreciate a chance to share updates on what’s been challenging and to boast about their child’s progress and accomplishments.
They may also savor a break from discussing autism-related topics and would instead enjoy chatting about what’s going on in your life. Either way, sending a message that you are invested in them and their child can help combat feelings of isolation.
Unless you have a child with special needs, it can be difficult to appreciate the immense amount of time and dedication it takes to be a special needs parent. Withhold opinions or criticisms on their child’s behavior or their style of parenting, while knowing they are already receiving an overwhelming amount of advice from many different avenues.
Also try to avoid making comparisons to someone else’s journey. You likely know more than one person with autism, and although these individuals share the same diagnosis, each has unique strengths and differences.
While these tips can allow you to begin providing social support, do not shy away from asking your friend how you can be of help to them in other ways. Autism acceptance is a lesson learned best by doing. Offering opportunities to socialize and be part of life outside of the autism bubble can be a way to show kindness and support for someone with autism and their family.