I get by with a little help from my friends

Several years ago at the playground of our integrated preschool, a bunch of my mom friends were discussing the pros and cons of the kindergartens they had the option of sending their kids to the following year. Since my son had only one choice the following year, the self-contained classroom that I could either take or leave, I observed silently and jealously from the sidelines. When a good friend declared that all the trouble of touring and choosing an elementary school was “just the worst,” I vividly recall excusing myself to go help my son on the swings. Our friendship was never quite the same after that. I checked out. It just hurt too much to be so invisible.

As someone raising a child whose special needs impact his ability to sustain friendships with typical peers, I spend a lot of time thinking about his friendships and how to support them.

I spend less time thinking about supporting my own. I’ve come to rely on a trusted and loving circle of friends and extended family. I’m so grateful for them. John wrote it and Ringo sang it best: Oh, I get by with a little help from my friends.

When I reflect back on the past 10 years, I can see that not all friendships made it. That’s nothing particular to special needs parenting, or even parenting. Not all relationships last forever.

Some recent research shines a light on why several of my friendships couldn’t go the distance, and how I might have changed that. It also explains why some of my relationships have gotten stronger, and what might have made that possible, too.

Researchers at Brigham Young University recently released findings that for people raising young children with disabilities, certain types of social relationships are typically more harmful and others more helpful for parents.

Interviewing 40 parents of young children with disabilities, the researchers set out to answer the question of whether social relationships are always a help, or whether they might be a hindrance. Here’s what they found:

  • Relationships with spouses/partners and their other children were on the whole positive.
  • Relationships with friends, extended family and colleagues was more often characterized as negative.

There’s much to explore and discuss. But it was the factors that the researchers attributed this difference to that really caught my attention:

Since parents of CWD [children with disabilities] often receive training on accepting and working with the CWD, and siblings can receive similar trainings and support through schools or sibling networks, unrelated social networks may need sensitivity training to help families raising CWD feel accepted. Disability advocates have made broad based efforts to promote acceptance of differences (e.g., billboards, public service announcements, advertisements in magazines); however, individual level trainings may be warranted.

In the weeks that have passed since I first read this, I’ve mourned a little for the friendships that didn’t last mostly because our society doesn’t yet raise folks to be naturally accepting to disability.

I realized too that when it comes to all I know about inclusion and celebrating difference, I was not born this way. I had to learn. So did my husband and my daughter and my mother and my father. And if I wasn’t born knowing this, how can I expect that others would?

The researchers closed with this cautious recommendation:

Parents and family members of CWD may benefit from educational interventions regarding how to teach others in their social networks about disability issues.

OK, then. We need to be taught how to teach others about disability. Looking back on my friendships that have thrived over the past 10 years of raising my child, I can see what made a difference. Connecting with other special needs families is a natural step, as they too are being taught to accept my son when they learn to accept their own children’s differences. Writing this blog has given me the chance to share my experience with friends and extended family whose own knowledge and experience delights me. Modeling my own appreciation for my son’s differences with his peers (and my own) has also made a difference. Making the effort to include him in our community has also given folks a chance to learn something new.

What has worked for you? Which friendships have thrived and which have withered? What are some things you’ve done to strengthen friendships during early childhood? What techniques should we start to talk about as a community?

And while I’m at it, let me say to all my friends: Thank you. I’m so grateful that you’re in my life.

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Siblings talk about the sibling experience

Following yesterday’s post about the importance of hearing more from siblings of special needs, someone pointed out this great video from the Arc of King County in Seattle, Washington.

Watching the video brought to mind a stressful evening last week where my daughter, who is typically developing, expressed her feelings of just how unfair it is that her brother, who has special needs, doesn’t have to do homework like her — through tears and with a great amount of screaming. This video convinced me that’s it’s time to ramp up the help she’s getting in figuring this all out.

The video is a little on the longer side at nearly 15 minutes, but a great introduction for parents, grandparents, family friends and teachers on the challenges their neurotypical kids might face. It could also be worth showing at a Special Ed Parents Advisory Council meeting or other gathering.

Families pull up a chair to the table

After years of asking myself questions like “Why am I filling out this medical form when this information is already in their computer?” or “Why does this doctor only see patients during school hours?” and other such silly observations along the journey through parenting a child with special needs, I suddenly find myself invited by a couple of well-respected healthcare institutions to share my perspective with their staff and students.

It’s quite a responsibility to be given a seat at the table among pediatricians, speech/occupational/physical therapists, psychiatrists, practice managers, social workers and policy lawyers. I am so grateful to those family advocates and disability activists who have worked tirelessly to create a culture where a parent’s experience and opinion is valued and sought out. I hope I don’t let them down. I’m also acutely aware that I am speaking on behalf of the vast majority of parents of children with special needs who feel disenfranchised and powerless; due to either perceived or actual limitations, they don’t know how to speak their mind, share their story, or give their feedback to the professionals who hold the purse strings, create the laws, implement the therapies or design the communities that impact their families’ lives in very real ways. I hope I don’t let them down either.

On the heels of us parents pulling up a chair at the table, there’s another group beginning to claim their space here too—siblings of people with special needs. As the folks who will possibly spend even more of their own lives with their special family members than parents, sometimes as adult caregivers and guardians, they have a perspective to add to the conversation. Particularly amazing to me is how aware they are of the ways this experience has shaped them and helped them grow. Their very “boots on the ground” experience with a decidedly non-parental (read: less hysterical) perspective gives their experience credibility; I know I seek out their advice to help me create a family where both of my children can thrive and feel nurtured.

As sibling groups mobilize to create support groups and education like SibShops, conduct and share research, and build their own community within the Family Movement, I just have to say how glad I am that they are here.

They also just might be more effective at educating the very folks whose tables I’m sitting at these days than I am. In blogs, at fundraising events, on YouTube, in the media and on Capitol Hill, they are savvy and persistent.

Here’s a recent example, a short but remarkable video by a teenage sister of a boy with special needs. I can’t believe how lucky we parents are to be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with her: