In Praise of Special Mothers



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Breakfast in bed and maybe a day off from household chores are typical ways to celebrate Mother’s Day.  But autism doesn’t take a day off. Children with autism often have difficulties communicating, tantrums, and aggression issues, and they don’t stop on Mother’s Day. Along with everyday parent duties, many also deal with sleep disorders, bedwetting for years and cooking special diets. They coordinate intensive therapies that run six or seven days per week topped off with the financial strain from having to pay out-of-pocket for most services!

It’s extremely hard to find babysitters who can manage the special needs of a child with autism. Friends and family often pull away in discomfort. The local toddler-parent-drop-in centre is too loud for their sensory disordered child. One mother’s autistic son runs away from the other children down the corridor, with his hands covering his ears. A day off from the strain and emotions simply isn’t possible.

Over the past two decades I’ve had the honour to educate and train hundreds of parents of children diagnosed with autism. I think of them as all-star moms. There are hundreds of thousands who care for children with special needs around the world and at least a few in your very own neighbourhood; each family has different resources, varying levels of support, and some are in desperate situations. Here are some concrete actions that neighbours, friends, and family can take to give these moms a boost of support on Mother’s Day.

5 ways to support a parent with an autistic child:

Listen. Much of their time with other adults is spent explaining about autism and their child. There is almost never time to chat about the latest movies, fashion, and other frivolous news. More importantly with so much focus on their child, there is often no space for them to talk about what’s going on for themselves. Spend time just listening, without an agenda, without giving advice, without feeling sorry. Create space for them to let their thoughts and feelings out and to chat about whatever they need to express.

Let them sleep. Years and years of broken sleep because of bed-wetting, sleep disorders, and hyperactivity can have a serious negative effect on a parent. Offer to babysit for an hour or two at a time so they can just nap. Turn the TV down, close the bedroom door, and any other thing you can do to create the environment so that mom can have a restful sleep.

Don’t judge. Have you ever thought to yourself that a parent you know should stop giving her child certain foods or that she should not let her child cry for so long? Like any parent, the moms and dads of children with autism are trying to do their best with a very challenging situation that they themselves are still learning about. They are doing their best to allocate limited resources. Everyone has an opinion looking from the outside in. These parents have almost always done endless hours of research and are consulting professionals. Better to bite your tongue and give them the benefit of the doubt.

Be a good friend. Over the years I have heard from so many moms that as soon as their child received a diagnosis many of their friends disappeared. Friends that used to call several times a week just to check in and to invite them for a movie or to a party stop calling. Friends assume these parents are overwhelmed, emotional, and don’t want to be bothered. Even long-time friends can feel uncomfortable not knowing what to do or say about the child with autism. The answer: Continue being that old familiar friend. A glass of wine with a friend and regular check-in phone calls can be just the right trick to balance the intensity of raising an autistic child. It’s nice for a parent to know you are there to help. But you can be just as supportive by simply being a more regular presence of friendship in their lives. If they need more or want less, trust that they’ll tell you.

Be a cheerleader for even small steps. Cheerleaders encourage their team throughout the game and cheer even louder when the team scores points. Put your advice for them aside and instead pick a project they are working on for their child and become the world’s most enthusiastic cheerleader for the project. Everyone loves to be celebrated and acknowledged, but for many parents of children with autism the steps toward goals are mini and slow. Take the time to let the parent of a child with autism know that you notice their parenting efforts and the positive development you see in their child. Call them or write a note and share a specific example of what they should feel good about. Maybe you notice their son is talking a little more or you notice their daughter is more attentive and listens better.

Jonathan Alderson is the author of Challenging the Myths of Autism, winner of the International Book Awards for best parent resource. He also founded and directs the Intensive Multi-Treatment Intervention (IMTI.ca) Program for children with autism.

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