August is Special-Needs Parents Appreciation Month, and its founder, Sandra Peoples, is sharing ways we can be good friends to special-needs families at the time of diagnosis and beyond.

The days after parents hear their child has a disability or special need can be difficult days. Most parents go through a mourning process. The expectations and dreams they may have had for their child die and new ones must take root. Some are in a whirlwind of doctor’s appointments. Some feel like they are learning a new language of acronyms and medical terms. All of them need an anchor to help steady them. 

How to Be There for Special-Needs Families

All special-needs parents, no matter when they get their child’s diagnosis or what that diagnosis is, need support from friends. Here are ways you can help:

  • Be there. In Job 2:11-13, Job’s three friends traveled to see him after they heard what happened. Scripture says for seven days and nights they just sat with him on the ground. You don’t have to pack an overnight bag and camp out on your friend’s couch, but be there. And when you aren’t there, let your friend know you’re available if she needs you.
  • Say something, even if you’re afraid it’s the wrong thing. After our son’s diagnosis, we were raw, and words that wouldn’t normally hurt sometimes did. But as we healed, we were less sensitive and much more appreciative of when friends didn’t ignore our situation, but joined us in the journey. When friends said nothing at all, we assumed their comfort was more important than our pain, and they weren’t willing to risk embarrassment.
  • Offer help but don’t pressure them to accept it. You may be great at Internet research and do a few searches that provide what you think is lots of helpful information about therapies, specialists, or even vitamins. It would be great if you sent an email with links to what you found, so your friend could check them out when she’s ready.
  • Keep including them and their children as much as possible. Special-needs parents are afraid they will lose all their friends because they are different now. Keep inviting them and their kids when you can and help them feel as comfortable as possible. We used to follow James around at parties and apologize for every little thing he did (like steal cookies of someone’s plate). But because our friends kept inviting us over, we grew more comfortable and were less stressed each time. And our friends learned to guard their cookies.
  • But understand when they just can’t come. It can be physical, emotional, social, or even sensory issues that keep special-needs families from being able to do what typical families can do. Parents have to learn their kids’ limits and sometimes those limits won’t allow them to hang out like they used to. They still want to be invited, but they don’t want to feel guilty when they have to say no.
  • Stand in the gap for them, especially with your typical kids. We were meeting a friend of mine at the mall and our kids were going to meet each other for the first time. She emailed me ahead of time and said her kids hadn’t been around many kids with autism, and she wanted to make sure they were polite but not pushy. She asked me how they could make James comfortable and not overwhelm him. I answered her questions and then she was able to communicate with her kids what to do. It made the meeting easier on all of us! Special-needs families usually don’t mind answering questions, but if you can anticipate the questions your kids will have and answer them ahead of time, it makes it easier on us (and especially easier on our typical children, who can feel embarrassed by too many questions about their siblings’ special needs).

If you’re a mom of older boys and teenagers, you are probably past the stage of having friends receiving special-needs diagnosis for their children, but you hopefully have friends who are special-needs parents (20% of the U.S. population has a disability).

Here are a few ideas to help communicate “I see you and appreciate all you’re doing for your family” to your friends who have kids with special needs.

  • Send an encouraging text.
  • Send an encouraging card.
  • Stop by with a candy bar and soda (or coffee or sweet tea).
  • Give her a gift card to a restaurant with a drive thru.
  • Give her a gift card to a restaurant without a drive thru and offer to babysit.
  • Invite the typical siblings over to play with your kids. (Typical siblings sometimes need a break from all they do to help their sibling with special-needs.)
  • Offer to take care of something around her house, like mowing the yard or getting more friends together to fix dinner for them every night for a week (or even a rotation of friends on the same night each week, like the day she has the most therapy appointments).
  • Be an advocate at church for her child. A special-needs family is less likely to attend church than a typical family. I work for a ministry that connects special-needs families to churches in their area that will accept and love them. Too many are asked to leave or are told the church just can’t provide what their family needs.

We all want to be appreciated for how we love and serve our families. Look around for opportunities to appreciate the moms you know who are doing a great job. This boost will be invaluable to the parents whose kids may not even be able to speak the words “thank you.”