Dear Friend Hesitant to Interact With My Special Needs Child:

I know my child makes you nervous.

It’s okay. Really. I still love you.

Knowing you to be the good and kind person of whom I am fond, I know the lack of interaction with him isn’t deliberate.  You are simply afraid, not of him but of doing something to upset him.  I have had this same fear in being around other people’s special needs kids in the past, so I get it.  I do.  But it makes me sad that you may be holding out and miss getting to know my sweet, precious little boy.  Because he is truly worth knowing.

One of the great wisdom statements about special needs children is that it is important to remember that they are first –children, followed by their special needs.  But I know that many folks, you included, see my child and see his special needs first.  And, I can’t blame you.  He is certainly different.

But, really, he is just a little boy, three years old.  And, though he is autistic and differs from typical children, it doesn’t change the part of him that is, first and foremost, a child.  Those of us who have, love, or work with special needs children get this.  But as my child has grown and his needs have become more evident, I have noticed well-intentioned family, friends, and acquaintances such as yourself struggle with how to interact with my son.

When my friends meet him – and aren’t sure how to engage him – it usually goes something like this:

“Will he get upset if I…?”

“Is he doing this because…”

“But he is so _______!  Are you sure he’s autistic?”

I know you aren’t avoiding him because you find him repugnant.  You are simply hesitant.  You don’t know where to begin.  And you probably feel guilty about it.  You may feel that stress come over you when you see him – wanting to interact with him like you would any other child, but fearful of saying or doing the wrong thing.  It probably doesn’t help that you once saw “Rainman”.   So, you ask questions but hold back, unsure of what to do.  I know you want a clear picture of him – a kind of map to guide you in interacting with him.  And that’s where I can’t completely help you.  Because getting a clear snapshot of a child with special needs is a very difficult thing.  Hence all the specialists.

I have used my three lenses analogy before, as it seems to make the most sense to me.  Often, I try to figure out what is going on with my son and find myself asking, “Which is at play here?  Autism?  Typical Toddler?  Or just Callum?”  I drove myself crazy doing that, trying to break him down into parts in my quest to figure out how to best help him.  And finally it hit me that I cannot analyze him in terms of one or another.  For he is all three.  He is at once a 3-year-old, an autistic child, and himself – Callum.

It’s like trying to take a picture with an SLR camera.  Normally, you can simply point and shoot and get a pretty good picture.  But, if you are in dim lighting, or there is a great deal of movement or distance, you have to use special settings and special lenses to filter and enhance the image.

Trying to figure out what motivates a special needs child can be complex.  To get a picture of that, you need three (or more) lenses.  You need the original camera lens itself to take a simple standard picture.  Then you need a second lens that filters for special needs – autism, Down Syndrome, etc.  You might need, depending on how many special needs conditions the child has, several such lenses.  Finally, you need a lens that enhances that child as an individual.  Because, like everyone else, special needs kids have their own temperaments, interests, fears, etc.  So, to get an accurate picture of a child with special needs, you have to take a picture with all three lenses at the same time.  For if you remove one of the lenses, the picture does not reflect the true child.

The problem is that some of the lenses we need still haven’t been invented.

So what do I say to my friends who honestly want to get to know my son but are hesitant about doing so?  It’s really simple.  Just ask me about him.  I’m all too happy to help you connect with him. I’ll tell you all about him.  Feel free to ask me what he likes.  How you might best make a favorable impression.  What might upset him.  And, then, just go for it.  Visit wearing comfortable clothes and get down on his level.  Take an interest in what he is doing and attempt to join him.  He’ll notice you.  Pretty soon he will likely begin interacting with you to some degree.  And, if you let him warm up to you, you might even get to roughhouse with him and get in some tickling and giggling.  He’ll love you, I promise.  And, if you are unwittingly doing something that might not be the best way of engaging him, I’ll be there to suggest another.  Soon, he may climb up on your lap. He will recognize you in the future and maybe smile when you walk in the door.  You will have made a special little buddy who will melt your heart.

And then you will have a clear picture of my child.  A child like every other –yet not.  A child who loves, laughs, plays, snuggles, fears, delights, and enjoys cookies as much as any other.  He may do all those things differently.  But he does do them.  And knowing him and forging a relationship with him will change both you and him for the better.  For not only is he worth you knowing, I happen to think you are worth him knowing.  🙂

Now, let me introduce you to my child.  I think you two are going to like one another.  🙂

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like:

Dear Friend Whom I Haven’t Seen Much of Lately

Why I Won’t Be Getting Mother of the Year: Layers of Understanding

Letter to My Neurotypical Child

The Place Where There Is Time for Everything

19 responses »

  1. Very well written. I have shared it on facebook because it is definitely worth reading. ♥

  2. Angie Z. says:

    Great post. While I’m by no means 100% comfortable around people or children with special needs (like most people), I feel so very blessed that I lived in a teeny-tiny town that happened to have a vocational school for adults and youth with developmental disabilities. So, because of our town’s close quarters, I was forced to interact with people of all abilities whether in school or in church or in my after-school job. I cringed through much of these encounters as a kid, but now as an adult I feel like it was a fantastic life experience for me.

    You’re an amazing mom! A person who can so eloquently communicate such complicated, sensitive things is certainly an asset to advancing compassion and understanding toward kids and adults with special needs.

  3. mtpilotmom says:

    Awesome! I am afraid that I am the “other” way. I often try too hard to engage a child whom I really want to see all the parts of! I have a big heart for SN kids and I LOVE getting to know how they tick. Some SN parents don’t understand this at all and think I am trying to “spotlight” their child’s differences. Then, there are the few parents who are ashamed of their child’s unique parts. Those are the hardest nuts to crack. I would absolutely enjoy meeting Callum. I just know it…

  4. Silvia says:

    A great article, congratulations! I’m sharing this with my friends 🙂

  5. Ashley Hughes says:

    You are amazing! I love how you put this. Its so true. I cannot tell you how many times I have felt this way, thought this, encountered this situation. I love your blog.

  6. Leah says:

    Beautiful! Thank you for writing such open, honest, and thoughtful blogs. Fantastic!

  7. Lynne Pardi says:

    I read this entry eagerly, as this was an emotional issue for me when my autistic son was a child. We had relatives who completely ignored Jay; and, there were those who were just obviously hesitant to try to engage him in any way. These reactions to my very sweet, cute little boy wounded me deeply.

    I must give you credit due for having a more mature, thoughtful reaction to this issue than I ever did. I guess i didn’t try to put myself in the other person’s place for a moment and try to understand their awkwardness. I just took insult– on behalf of my child and myself. In reality, these folks probably meant no insult or disrespect. Oh, gosh, I feel like printing out your piece , making many copies, and sending them to everyone that I know!! (Don’t worry– I won’t) You took the time and effort to address the “awkward friends’ ” feelings and confusion. You respected their feelings and invited them to get to know your son despite them, because he is worth knowing— and so are they!

    Anyway, it’s a wonderful article! Thank you!!

  8. Have I mentioned recently how much I love your blog posts? This one in particular is really great. Thanks for writing 🙂

  9. Unfortunately, I have had a friend tell me that she is, straight up, afraid of my son. Not of his autism, or what he might do, or her possible inability to interact with him, but of him. It broke my heart. But I still love her and I need to understand where she is coming from too. I would never cut her out of my life or force our friendship to be contingent upon her getting to know my son, but damn does it hurt.

    • FlappinessIs says:

      I’m not sure what your son’s behaviors are like. But I know that has to hurt. I realize that some special needs kids are violent, and that does change the situation. I certainly wouldn’t want to imply that a person not protect themselves from someone who is a danger both to themselves and others. Our little guy is pretty friendly, and for that we are fortunate.

      • He has self-injurous behaviors, screaming outbursts but is generally not violent towards others. It’s not a big leap for someone to see that behavior and think that it will be directed at them. But if they took the time to really know him they would see that he is not interested in harming others. That’s a big roadblock to get over though.

  10. ProfMomEsq says:

    Perfect. I think I need to print this as a flyer to hand out at the front door, the park, school, the grocery store … And I love your lenses anology. Man, did that hit home for me today. Just last night, I found myself struggling to respond when Linny hit and screamed at her older brother for no readily apparent reason. Same thought process: Autism? Four-year-old-ness? Tired? How do I balance the need to discipline the hitting behavior against the need to acknowledge whatever set her off that she lacked the words to otherwise communicate? I think you’ve got the answer — you do both. It doesn’t have to be either/or, does it?

  11. Lynn T says:

    Thank you and oh so true!!

  12. cathykal says:

    Beautifully written! Thank you for this letter– you took me back to the days when my Alex was 3 🙂 I’m going to share this one!

    All best wishes,

  13. Jim Reeve says:

    We all know that raising a child with an ASD can be very interesting. We as parents know that it has ups and downs associated with it. But our friends can become nervous around my son especially if they’ve seen him have a meltdown. The key for us is repeated short, contolled visits or interactions. This way Jacob can become comfortable with a person before having a long interaction. All you can do is keep on trying.

  14. Sue Cranmer says:

    Good article and applicable for people with autism of all ages. My son is 34 and most people would rather stare than interact. You’d think I’d be used to it by now but it still hurts.

  15. Christy says:

    Well said, my dear friend 🙂 Love it!

  16. Thank you so much for this! You just made my day. 🙂

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