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The Same But Different

with Susan Wagner

Susan Wagner is a freelance writer and editor, an avid runner and a mom of two boys. She's tentatively navigating the teen years with her oldest son, who has ADHD and an anxiety disorder (because puberty isn't hard enough already). [Insert blog name here] chronicles her efforts to balance science homework, basketball practice and panic attacks without completely losing her mind. Follow Susan on Twitter and Instagram (@workingcloset) and at her personal blog, The Working Closet

3 Things Not To Say To The Parents of a Special Needs Kid

Categories: children, special needs kid, support system

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I’ve always been protective of my children’s privacy, largely because they go to a very small school. I’ve been extra cautious about what I tell other parents about Henry’s issues in particular, because I didn’t want anyone to judge him — or me. But when he started middle school, it became clear that unless we were honest about his struggles — with him and with the people around him — he wouldn’t get the right kind of help.

I tell people that he has an anxiety disorder; that’s the most salient part of his profile. And for the most part, everyone is kind and accepting. But a lot of the time, even the people who are going out of their way to be nice will say the wrong thing. They mean well, but they’re not being helpful. At all.

What should you not say to parents of kids with autism spectrum disorders? Here are three things to avoid — and two things we’re happy to hear.

He’ll grow out of it. Disabilities like Henry’s can be hard to process because they’re invisible — he doesn’t talk with a lisp or walk with a limp, so it’s hard to see that he’s not like other kids. Well-meaning adults will also say It’s just a phase and They all act like this. But the truth is that he won’t and it isn’t and they don’t, and dismissing his disability, even in a supportive way, doesn’t help him — or me.

He needs to sign up for [insert name of activity] — my kids loved it! I’m sure your kids did love track or drama camp or computer class, and I would really like to get my kid out of the game room and into something he enjoys, but he’s not able. And honestly, it makes me a little sad to hear, over and over, how much fun your kid has doing all these things when my kid cannot. Offering to share information about programs your kids have enjoyed is great, but insisting that I sign Henry up isn’t helpful.

I told my child he had to invite Henry to his party/the movies/whatever the kids are doing this weekend. While this is always well-meant, it is counterproductive. By middle school, kids have their friends, and compelling a tween or teen to socialize with someone he doesn’t particularly like isn’t helpful to either kid. Henry’s social skills are lagging but he’s smart enough to know when he’s being included only at an adult’s insistence — and it makes him edgy and anxious.

So what can you say? There are two things I’m always pleased to hear, in any context.

How can I help? Being a parent is all about helping out — I’m constantly driving extra kids to and from practices and games, feeding them snacks and supervising their homework. That’s the typical help that middle school parents offer each other. But I need a different kind of help with Henry. Sometimes it’s simple things, like keeping an eye on the house when he’s home alone; other times it’s more complicated, like not letting your dog inside when he’s visiting. But the offer of help is always welcome, no matter what the situation.

How’s Henry doing? It’s ok to acknowledge that Henry struggles; I always appreciate people who ask how he is and what’s new with him. And while I’m not necessarily going to burden you with a long story about his most recent meltdown or his latest quirky project, I will always be happy that you asked. I promise.

What are your favorite — and least favorite — things to hear from other parents?

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