What To Do (And Not Do) When A Friend Has A Child With Special Needs

by Melanie Oates
Originally Published: 
A mother hugging her smiling daughter with special needs in a garden
DenKuvaiev / Getty

Imagine you’re out at the park with your child who is on the spectrum. Or what about if you’ve mustered up the energy to pack up your car with your child’s wheelchair and you’re out and about enjoying the beautiful weather. But in your peripheral vision, you see someone looking at you — staring.

Or how about being approached by someone you haven’t seen in a while, and the conversation gets really awkward. That, my friend, is something we parents of kids with special needs encounter on a daily basis.

Here are a few of my pet peeves along with some tips to help turn an awkward encounter into a memorable one.

Pet Peeve #1: Trying to Relate

It’s so great when we run into people we haven’t seen in a long time. The conversation may start out like this:

The Friend: “Hi!! Oh my gosh, I haven’t seen you in so long! Your kids are so beautiful!!”

But then, the conversation goes south and things get pretty awkward.

The Friend, again: “I just wanted you to know that my co-workers-daughter’s-best friend’s-brother’s-nieces-nephew… has Down syndrome.”

Special Needs Parent: “Ummmm….Okay?….?”

What are we supposed to say to that? How about leaving the history line alone and just be happy to see us. Trust me, we want to have as much of a normal conversation as possible.

Pet Peeve #2: Sympathizing When We’re Out

We know that what we go through is different and tough, but do us all a favor: If you see us out, don’t feel sorry for us. Be happy that we’re out. All we’re doing is trying to give our child the best life we can. Trust me, if we’ve managed to gather our child’s wheelchair, oxygen tank, heart monitor, feeding pump, and whatever else — be happy for us! Don’t remind us of our situation by feeling sorry or bad for us.

Pet Peeve #3: Staring

Let’s say you happen to see a family who has a child in a wheelchair. Or it’s a family who has a child with autism and that child is having an episode. And then BOOM! You start staring at them, without even realizing you’re doing it.

Thanks to a magical thing called peripheral vision, we definitely see you looking at us. Now, if you happen to get caught staring, DO NOT QUICKLY LOOK THE OTHER WAY! Or even worse, DON’T WALK AWAY! Instead, acknowledge your stare. What do I mean by acknowledging? Smile at us. Or even just a quick head nod and a wave is fine.

Oh, you want to do more than just smiling. Sure! How about taking action on your stare? We parents won’t bite. If you see us, and our child on the spectrum is having an episode, politely ask that parent if they need help with anything. Or if you see a parent with their hands full and also a wheelchair that they have to disassemble to get it into their car, ask if they need any help.

A simple offer of assistance can go a long way. Try it one day.

These pet peeves are things that I have personally gone through, but I’m sure my other special needs parent comrades can relate. To see more on this topic, check out my latest vlog right here: Pet Peeves | Special Needs Parent Edition 2018.

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