For many people diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, making friends is extremely difficult. And for the moms and dads of the 1 in 59 impacted by autism, keeping friends might seem equally as challenging.
When you learn that your child has autism, you begin to hear an awful lot about “social skills.” Because the neurological disorder typically comes with difficulty making eye contact, a more literal experience of the world, and sensory overload, people with autism often have a very hard time building relationships with their neurotypical peers or family members. Social skills trainings begin, among dozens of other therapies and educational programs to address other challenges and strengthen unique skills.
This was my journey with my son Joey. Like most moms, I expected to focus solely on his growth and development. But as he engaged in exhausting therapy sessions to build his skills, my own understanding of socialization deepened and expanded for myself. I began to see unexpected parallels between my child with severe needs and me. We both needed friendships in a more significant way than I ever imagined, and we both needed to learn a few key lessons in order to make those friendships come to life.
Between therapies and appointments, there’s no question that I had very little — if anything — to give to anyone. Most parents of children with special needs will probably echo that sentiment. By sunset on most days, I was physically and emotionally drained, making it nearly impossible to reach out to anyone. And within a few hours after dawn, just like Joey and others on the spectrum, I was in sensory overload mode. There was just so much information to process, and so many questions were unanswered. The world felt confusing, and I often felt I was seeing it through a different lens than anyone else who I crossed on my path.
It’s ironic how the experiences and challenges our kids have can shine a light on those things we most need to address for ourselves.
Just as Joey needed my reliable, compassionate presence to keep him moving forward in spite of his challenges, I likewise needed the presence of my loving, understanding friends if I were to continue to have the momentum I needed. Never before had I realized the importance of human relationships with this level of depth. Never before had I needed the support of others so much. Never before had I felt so grateful for the connections I was able to sustain, knowing that my social skills were definitely works in progress.
I thought about the concept of reciprocity: a focal point for social skills groups. I wanted to see Joey learn about give and take, yet wasn’t able to live up to it myself. My childhood friends knew I couldn’t, but those are the pals who knew my core self better than almost anyone; we had history that could carry us despite the fact that I wasn’t able to give what I was receiving. They offered unfailing forgiveness as I forgot birthdays, bagged on highly-anticipated get-togethers, and neglected to ask about what was happening in their lives. No reciprocity? No problem. These friendships were my foundation. They gave me strength and courage. And they continue to do so today, no matter how many years have gone by since our carefree childhood adventures together. They’re in this life adventure with me, and, along with my husband and family, give me what I need to thrive. They know me and understand that even if I have nothing left to give, they have a deep, special place in my heart. And that’s enough for them.
I also thought about the fact that in social skills groups, therapists and teachers look to build meaningful connections between people with autism and those around them. Hmm. Another lesson for me! As I brought my son to Anderson Center for Autism and he stepped foot onto the beautiful campus where he’d live and attend school, surrounded by total strangers, I felt his uncertainty AND got a big wave of my own. Shaking hands with total strangers, I wondered if I could ever feel comfortable with this new set of people. And yet, I opened my heart and discovered wonderful friendships with “Autism Families” who have helped me manage through thick and thin. There’s a common ground, a mutual understanding, a sense of undying respect, and an unwavering experience of kinship. We understand the stress level we all face daily and the gratitude that comes from having just a few drama-free hours during any given week. We talk openly about things that would make others cringe. We come up with ideas for one another’s children in hopes that we can help give them their best lives. Our heads are constantly overstuffed because we always have to be one step ahead, managing the behaviors of our kids before they even come to fruition. And we get that about each other. Our lives can be very lonely; leisure time and activities are highly limited. It’s so refreshing and comforting to be in their presence.
Another lesson often taught in social skills groups for people with autism is something that can be tough on special needs parents like me: learning to be flexible. As parents, we always assume we’re going to care for our kids every single day. We have these preconceived ideas about what family life will look like. We assume we’re in control. But we’re not. Joey needed more than we could give him at home, and enrolling him at his full-time residential and educational center, Anderson Center for Autism, was the right thing to do if we were going to give him the best opportunities to shine and the highest quality of life possible. Even if it was the most painful decision we’d ever have to make. Even if it was totally misaligned with that initial vision we had for family life. Even if it meant driving hundreds of miles on the weekends to see him. Here’s the thing though: The staff, teachers, therapists, and volunteers at Anderson have become the friends that Joey needs and deserves to have in HIS life, and this has actually given us the peace of mind needed to enjoy socializing again ourselves.
Recently we took a trip with friends to the Bahamas for my husband’s birthday. We haven’t been able to get away like that since Joey was a baby (he’s a young man now). While we were there, I thought about the fact that Joey will always have our love and friendship, along with the friendships he’s built at Anderson and in our family’s circles, and my husband and I also have the connections we need to enjoy full lives and full hearts as well. We are all works in progress and certainly can benefit from ongoing “social skills trainings” to better relate to the people around us, but parenting Joey has given us a great understanding of the rewards of deep, connected friendships. And for that, among so much more, I am one very lucky mom.