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Special Needs

When Tracy Glock’s 13-month-old daughter Kira was hospitalized with acute myeloid leukemia, she was touched by the outpouring of support she and her husband received.

During those eight difficult months, the Fredericksburg community rallied around the family. Friends and acquaintances babysat Kira in the hospital while her mom and dad worked, and many others helped by delivering meals and even mowing the family’s lawn.

“Words cannot express the gratitude you feel when someone you barely know does so much for you,” Glock says, who was also pregnant at the time with Kira’s sister Allina.

Although Kira, now 7, has recovered from the frightening ordeal, she still faces many daily challenges. As a child with Down syndrome and autism, learning and development takes longer and requires more patience compared to the typically developing child. Like many parents who have children with special needs, Glock says finding time for herself is difficult.

While many of us know how to help a family in crisis, how do we support parents who often put their own needs last as they focus on the daily challenges of caring for special needs youngsters?

Offer to babysit

Finding trustworthy, alternate caretakers is a huge relief for parents who regularly juggle doctor’s appointments, school issues and therapy, not to mention jobs and other children.

“Every special needs parent’s needs are different, but most just love a little rest,” Glock says.

Educate yourself

Get to know your friend’s child, including her disability, her personality quirks and her individual needs. And ask your friend about her specific parenting challenges.

“It shows that you care and will help you provide more effective support,” says Heather Trammell, mom to two special needs children, including Beth, 14, who has Down syndrome and Marie, 11, who has high-functioning autism. Both girls also have a connective tissue disorder called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome.

Listen

Ask your friend how she’s doing and then simply listen. Avoid offering platitudes or suggestions to help her fix problems.

“We all just like to be heard. Everybody likes to vent,” says Nancy Masannat, mom to two children, including Emy, 16, and Kyle, 14, who is on the autism spectrum. “Just listen to what the issues are without judgment.”

Suggest resources

Support groups help parents feel less alone and provide valuable resources for assistance in child care, school issues and navigating health care.

Masannat facilitates a Facebook group called Autism Parents of Fredericksburg. Glock is the local coordinator, president and new parent mentor of the Down Syndrome Association of Fredericksburg on Facebook, a community group associated with the Down Syndrome Association of Northern Virginia, www.dsanv.org.

Other ideas to brighten your friend’s day:

  • Purchase a gift certificate for a massage or manicure
  • Offer to babysit and/or help with siblings
  • Deliver a meal
  • Mow their lawn
  • Send a bouquet of cheerful flowers
  • Arrange for a house cleaning crew
  • Ask if you can pick up anything while running errands
  • Mail an encouraging card

Freelance journalist, Christa Melnyk Hines, and her husband are the parents of two sons. She is the author of Confidently Connected: A Mom’s Guide to a Satisfying Social Life.

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