January 27, 2010

How Should I Respond if Someone I Love has a Child with Autism?

There are two parts to this question I'd like to address.

1) What if I suspect a family member or friend's child is showing signs of autism?

If you are seeing signs, but are afraid the parent is not seeing them, it is very important how you approach the situation. In most cases, I would very strongly discourage you from coming out and saying, "I think your kid has autism". A better approach would be to wait on the parent to bring up concerns and then very carefully and thoughtfully share in their concern or encourage them to go see a professional. Most parents will start having concerns and will bring it up to close family and friends for feedback. When you give feedback, do not pronounce a diagnosis, but listen, lovingly tell them what you're seeing ("I have noticed that he doesn't wave or point"), and then encourage them to seek help. Always approach your loved one with support, encouragement, and love while allowing professionals to diagnose, treat, and advise.

2) What if someone I love just received an autism diagnosis for their child?

First, know that you have an opportunity to be a huge blessing in the life of that parent and child. The parents are experiencing some very difficult days and can use your love, support, and encouragement. Here are some suggestions on how you can best show that:

  • Ask Questions and Listen. Some parents may not be "talkers", but it's important to give them an opportunity to talk if they want or need to. Whatever you do, do not remain silent because this may imply that you are going on with life as usual while theirs has been turned upside down. You don't necessarily have to know the right words to say, but by asking questions or letting them know you care about them and the child, they will know you are available if they need to talk. Here are some questions to get you started:
  1. Tell me about how you discovered your child had his disability. If you aren't familiar with autism, this would also be a good time to ask questions about autism.
  2. What are the challenges you face as a parent of a child with special needs?
  3. How are you handling the diagnosis? How are you feeling today?
  4. As a parent of a special needs child, how can I support you?
  5. As a parent of a special needs child, how can we, as a church or a small group, support you?
  6. What are your child’s strengths? What does he/she enjoy doing?
  7. What kind of struggles does your child have on a daily basis because of his/her disability?
  8. How does having a child with a disability affect your other children?
  9. What concerns do you have for your child’s future?
  10. What treatments are you considering?
    • Don't try to make them feel better. Your concern and love will encourage them, but there is really nothing you can do to make them feel better. Some people said things to me like, "Oh, my kid does that too!" as if it wasn't a big deal and he would grow out of the autism. Others said, "Well, at least he isn't severe" which said to me they didn't understand at all.  I know people meant well and were just trying to make me feel better, but it had the opposite effect.
    • Refrain from offering advice or judgment. You would be surprised at how often they are receiving unsolicited advice on topics ranging from their child's behavior, causes of autism, and treatment options. People have very strong feelings about it! It's also important to offer them unconditional love and grace as they parent their child. They are making lots of choices for their child that they have agonized over. They are trying to do what is best for their child and family. They don't need your judgment on those decisions.
    • Offer them a break. Offer them a weekend away to catch their breath and refuel for their daily battles. Offer them a date night with free babysitting. Offer to watch their child for an afternoon while they take a nap or run errands. 
    • Continue to check in. As the parents get into a new normal and months pass, they may have new feelings arise in relation to the diagnosis. Continue to give them your ear. You cannot go wrong with listening!
    • Pray for them. The most impactful encouragement I have received is from people who have told me that they spent a morning praying for my son and then telling me the specifics of what they prayed. It felt like I wasn't in the battle all by myself. 
    • Love that child really well. Don't be afraid of the disability. Love the child by continuing to try to engage them (even if they make it awkward and difficult). Invite them to birthday parties and social events. Show them affection. The parent will greatly appreciate it and it will be good for the child.
    If anyone else has any suggestions for family members or friends, please share them with the rest of us!