How to be a good friend to a family with a special needs child

I’m not a professional provider of services to people with special needs, only a mom of a child with Down syndrome. As much as that qualifies me to give advice, here are my tips for being a good friend:

  1. Use “people first” language. People with disabilities are people first, and identifying them by their disability isn’t the best way to affirm that. So instead of saying, “my disabled son” or “my Down syndrome son,” I prefer to say (and hear) “my son who has Down syndrome.” He is my son first; Down syndrome is what he has, not who he is.

  2. Give your friend grace. Parents of kids with special needs often experience limits on their time and resources. This may mean that they’re not as available for social get-togethers or other activities as they once were. If they miss a birthday party or other family function, it doesn’t mean they don’t care. It may just means they’ve reached the end of their energy!

  3. Validate your friend. Some of the most helpful interactions I’ve had with friends have included a time for me to vent about the challenges I’m facing, without hearing anything but “Wow, that must be really hard.” I’m generally not looking for solutions, just affirmation.

  4. Show interest in the child who has special needs. Try to get to know this child as you would any other. It’s okay to ask questions if you don’t understand what the child is communicating or if you don’t know why s/he is acting in a certain way. Take your cues from the parent.

  5. Pray. Pray for your friends and all of their family members. Better still, ask them directly how you can pray for them: a special intention, or grace they need to get through something difficult. Knowing people are praying for me has been the best gift of all.

You’ll note that my advice doesn’t include time-consuming practices (although who doesn’t appreciate the occasional pan of lasagna—unrequested?). Rather, these tips are about attitudes and actions which translate into being a compassionate, supportive, and loving friend.

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