My two boys, Jasper and Felix, were born 15 months apart when I was in my late 20s, around the same time several of my closest girlfriends were also having babies. We were living in New York City, working in fashion, media and PR and talking the talk of most new moms — sleep (or lack thereof), spit up and diapers.
As time went on though, both of my sons appeared to be delayed in different areas. My oldest wasn’t talking at 15 months. My younger one appeared to have attentional and sensory issues — he was so easily overwhelmed by loud noises and busy places…. And by the time my boys turned 3 and 2, my older son, Jasper, had received an autism diagnosis and Felix was receiving early intervention services for his various delays. I didn’t know of anyone with a child who was anything other than typically developing and seemingly “perfect.”
Around that time, we made the decision to move our family to Connecticut. My kind New York City friends called me with offers of introductions to their suburban friends with boys the same age as mine who lived in or near my new town. “How on earth can I schedule a playdate with any of those moms?” I thought. My 3-year-old spoke no more than three words at the time, and my little one was only scripting Elmo (scripting is repeating verbatim the words from a TV show or book, a common habit of children on the spectrum), and that was only when he took his thumb out of his mouth, which was rare.
There I was in the country after having lived 10 years in the city, with two kids that clearly didn’t “fit in.” Signing up for mommy-and-me classes to meet people wasn’t an option because my boys couldn’t begin to sit for circle time (not to mention I couldn’t even leave the house alone with the two of them because neither had enough receptive language to understand “stop” or “come here”). I was desperate to meet someone who understood my experience of raising children.
Shortly after moving to Connecticut, I uncharacteristically forced my husband to attend a special education preschool cocktail party in an effort to find moms who “got it.” That is where I met my first friend. Her son was a year older and she had been navigating autism in the public school system for a couple of years already. She quickly became my lifeline, my therapist, and my advisor on all things autism in our town and school district. She also happened to be beautiful, hilariously funny, and smart and helped me figure out the best supermarket and hair salon in town. I had never been so grateful to have a person come into my life.
Over the years, I have been lucky enough to accrue a small posse of cool, compassionate special needs moms. We have provided each other with everything from the best therapists and legal advocates to autism-friendly restaurants and gymnastics classes. We are each other’s go-to when in tears, in moments when we can’t handle one more minute of a repetitive behavior or one more sleepless night, or one more house escape, or one more embarrassing supermarket meltdown.
I can’t imagine my life without these amazing women. I love my friends from my New York City days and I love when we meet up once a month to celebrate each other’s birthdays…. But our hopes and dreams and futures for our kids will forever be different. It was then and continues to be so important for me to have a “tribe” of moms who share similar experiences to mine in raising their kids. They are my sanity.
My advice to any new special needs moms is to surround yourself with people who get it. I promise these friendships will be a game-changer for you and your family’s social and emotional well-being.
Gena Mann is the co-founder of Wolf + Friends, a modern lifestyle app for moms raising children with special needs such as ADHD, learning differences, developmental delays, anxiety, giftedness, mental health issues, sensory processing issues, down syndrome, and autism. Download the app for iOS here.