We all need friends who get us. But developing strong friendships during the season of motherhood is a task that even mothers of neurotypical children struggle with. When there are developmental issues (such as Autism) involved, having close, positive relationships with others can seem impossible to the average mother . . . unless those of us who can seek to understand the unique difficulties these moms face and develop concrete ways to be their friends.
There are many ways to be a friend to mom with a child on the Autism Spectrum. Here are a few options for you to try with your friend.
1. Listen without trying to fix her problem.
It is really hard to listen without adding in our own opinions and/or anecdotal evidence to try to feel helpful. Yet healing often lies in the “being heard” part of speaking. Many people know how to solve their own problems and begin to heal on their own with your listening ear, a little validation, and maybe a hug.
Say things like the following. “That sounds hard.” “I can see how that would be a struggle.” “Thank you so much for talking to me.” Phrases like these validate her feelings and tell her you’re honored she chose you to confide in.
2. Ask her kid about his or her interests.
Kids on the Autism Spectrum can seem uninterested in talking to you. They may do things that make others not want to approach them (e.g. being loud, running around, hiding) because they are anxious and uncomfortable. So take the risk of being ignored or acting awkward. Over time it won’t be awkward anymore. They will grow on you and you will grow on them.
Ask them what their favorite toy or food is. Ask them what their favorite subject is. Keep it concrete and limit questions with a “yes/no” answer.
3. Offer to come over to her house and watch the kids for her.
Kids on the Autism Spectrum are a 24/7 gig. Theyreally struggle to do things on their own, even a little bit. They usually need some sort of intervention and/or one-on-one supervision when doing something. Lots of Spectrum moms will decline help at first, thinking you’re just trying to be nice. They are intimately aware of how tough it is to work with and accommodate their child. Keep asking. Keep offering. Eventually she may realize you are for real and will be forever grateful.
Use specific language like “What day next week would be good to come watch your kids for two hours?” Encourage her to do something she wants to do and normally cannot. Also, encourage her to wear ear plugs.
4. Offer to come to her house for a play date and bring everything for it.
It’s tough for an Autism Spectrum mom to get out of the house. So go to her and come prepared with everything the kids will need for a fun time.
What to bring: allergy friendly snacks, activities for the kids to do, mommy drinks, etc. Explicitly state she is not to do anything.
5. Have allergy friendly food options at your kid’s next party.
Many kids on the Autism Spectrum have special dietary needs. Yet they enjoy cake just as much as any other kid. When your child has a birthday party or other get-together, make it a point to have allergy friendly candy/treat options for kids. These days even parents of kids without allergies are preferring to go dye free, gluten free, dairy free, soy free, and preservative free for health reasons. Health food stores like Whole Foods and Sprouts, even Amazon, have allergy friendly options for many party foods like cake, icing, soda, brownies, fudge, fish crackers, M&M’s, Starburst, gummy worms, candy bars, and pretzels. You might spend somewhere between $5-30 more on foods. But another child feeling included can be worth a couple more dollars on the party budget.
If you don’t feel comfortable choosing the alternative foods or do not have enough money to spend on allergy friendly options, let your friend know what food will be at the party. She can then choose to pack/make her child something comparable.
Remember that each mom is has a unique way of doing things. And each child on the Autism Spectrum has different needs/abilities, so while these general tips may be helpful in some situations, they may not be helpful or appropriate for all. Your best option is to talk it over with your mom friend. Find out what she needs to feel less stressed, more supported, and more accepted by her mom community. Spectrum moms may take a little while to warm up to having close friends, fearing their life is too much for the average person to handle. Once you show yourself to be both reliable and thoughtful, you might just find yourself in the company one of the most caring, loyal, and unconditionally loving kind of friend. Your investment in her life may be what brings some of the most joyful moments to yours.
Kelly Waggoner, MA, LMHC is a mental health counselor and neurotherapist and is the owner of Serenity Counseling & Neurofeedback in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Kelly frequently delivers presentations discussing the unique vocational concerns of psychological and developmental issues common in American society as well as brain health and nutritional concerns. She has been featured as a presenter for the New Mexico Counseling Association and the Colorado Counseling Association’s Annual Conferences discussing Neurofeedback Training as a medication-free option for cognitive and psychological issues. Therapeutically, Kelly specializes in the Autism Spectrum, ADD/ADHD, cognitive disabilities like dyslexia and memory issues, and mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. She is also mom to two preschool boys, ages 3 and 1.