After our son’s autism diagnosis, everything changed. Our priorities changed. How we spent our money changed. Our schedule changed. And although we weren’t prepared for it, our friendships changed. We were going through a season of grief and confusion, and we felt more isolated than ever. When we got through those early years after his diagnosis, we were able to look back and evaluate what changed about those relationships and think about how to develop future friendships after our move from Pennsylvania to Texas.
Making and maintaining friendships as a special-needs mom is tough. There are three challenges to friendships I’ve experienced and heard from others:
- Busyness- We are busy with therapy and doctors appointments. Some of our kids have prolonged hospital stays, and we’re with them as much as possible. We have more meetings at school than typical parents. Many of us are active working toward reform in insurance or government services. All parents are busy, and special-needs parents have even more on our plates than others.
- Super mom perception– Years ago I sat down over coffee with a friend who hadn’t been very friendly lately. I asked if I had done something to hurt or offend her because I wanted to apologize. Her response, “You don’t seem to need me as a friend. You’re like a super mom.” After James’s diagnosis I had gone into warrior-mom mode. I was focused on being the kind of mom James deserved, who would help him reach his potential no matter what. And that meant I refused help when it was offered and didn’t let anyone know when I was hurting or needy. Friendships need to feel reciprocal, and I wasn’t letting my friends be the friends they wanted to because I was putting off the super mom vibe. This is often unintentional, but it’s perceived by others nonetheless.
- The stage my son is in vs. his age- My boys are now twelve and ten. The people we are meeting and making friends with have kids close to our kids’ ages. But James’s developmental stage is closer to that of a three-year-old. When we hang out with peers, James can’t disappear into the game room to play Minecraft like the other boys can. I have to watch him every minute. This keeps us from getting invited over to friends’ houses, and when we do get invited, it keeps me from being able to actually spend time with others.
That’s the bad news. There may be even more reasons that you experience that I haven’t listed. But there’s good news too.
We can overcome these challenges. We can fight for friendships and invest in relationships. Here’s what has worked for me.
Be the kind of friend I want to have. In“The secret to feeling less alone is not to simply wish for others to come into your world to meet your needs. Instead it is to go into their world and meet theirs.” So if I’m having a bad day and think, I wish someone would text and ask how I’m feeling, I text a friend to ask how she’s feeling. When I have some extra time and want to grab lunch with someone, I find someone to have lunch with. I’m an introvert by nature, so I often have to force myself to take the first steps, but it’s worth it!
Be the host. As I mentioned, it’s hard for us to visit other peoples’ houses. But it’s less hard to have people over. So we invite families over most weekends. A couple weeks ago I shared hospitality tips for special-needs families that I hope will encourage you to invite someone over soon!
Find community online. Some of my very favorite people are online friends. Especially fellow special-needs moms. For example, I have a self-care for the special-needs mom group that is a huge support to me. We check in each Monday with the goals we have for the week, we share prayer requests as we head into each weekend, and throughout the week moms are sharing what’s on their hearts and minds. There’s no pressure to show up somewhere at a certain time, Facebook is always open.
I know making and maintaining friendships is hard. I laughed out loud when I read on Twitter, “No one talks about Jesus’s greatest miracle—having a close group of friends into his thirties!” It’s true for everyone as we move away from our school years and are knee-deep in the daily routine of raising a family. It’s especially true for those of us with kids who have additional needs. But I’m working hard at investing in existing friendships and making new ones. We weren’t meant to live this life alone.
Sandra Peoples, MDiv, is a leading voice in the disability community as an encourager to special-needs parents. She has been a member of a special-needs family since the day she was born. Her older sister has Down syndrome, and in 2010 her son James was diagnosed with autism. Sandra is the executive editor for Key Ministry and Not Alone (Patheos). Sandra, her husband, and their two boys live outside of Houston.