“We are hardwired to connect with others; it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it there is suffering,” says Brene Brown, Ph.D, LMSW in the bestselling book, Daring Greatly. Truer words were never written, especially when your child has special needs.
For me, connecting with others to whom I, my husband and now 20-year-old son can relate is critical to our family’s wellbeing. It’s the difference between feeling like an outsider vs. feeling enveloped and nurtured by those who “get us” and are supportive.
Parenting naturally brings about insecuritiesand comparisons and we have gotten really good at beating ourselves up if anything doesn’t seem up to par. Imagine then, when your child significantly stands out and is even bullied, due to his challenges. Once a child receives a diagnosis or a parent suspects a diagnosis is imminent, support groups can be a tremendous help in making parents and children feel accepted.
Although, initially, when a parent is first learning about her child’s differences, it can feel extremely overwhelming to hear from those who are living a life you may not be quite ready to face. My advice is to go slowly, give different groups enough of a chance, and be very patient and kind to yourself.
Through the years our family has found tremendous solace in special needs groups, such as ASPEN (Asperger Autism Spectrum Education Network) www.aspennj.org. This organization is specifically for parents, caregivers and professionals of individuals with high functioning Autism/Asperger’s. Some of the chapters have social groups for teens and adults with Asperger’s and even groups for fathers of children with Asperger’s.
A Place for Everyone
There are support groups and social groups for every disability across the country—in person, and online. You never have to feel disconnected. Google any disability and “support group” and you will find tremendous resources for you and your child.
It’s important for everyone to have friends who share your sense of humor and interests. Steven has made great friends through special needs activities like basketball, where he learns skills and plays competitive ball. This group was started by parents and is held and sponsored by the local Jewish Community Center (similar to a YMCA). It is open to individuals of any religion throughout the community. Steven is also currently taking a special needs art class through this organization. Could he participate in a non-special needs art class? Sure, but the instructors and fellow classmates might not be as patient with some of his rigidity. This isn’t to say we don’t constantly work on helping him to be more flexible, but we don’t have to feel stressed when his changes come at a slower pace. We feel accepted for where we are now.
Steven additionally participates in Special Olympics sports alongside competitive players with a wide variety of disabilities, including autism. Another favorite is a large recreational group led by a special needs teacher, which encompasses teens and adults with special needs throughout the larger community. The group meets Friday nights in the gym at a local church with typical mentors to compete in game-show style games (of which my son is often the emcee) and sports activities. At the end of the school year the participants put on their own show for family members, which Steven adores.
While my son may be more sociable than others, participating in a few more special needs groups than I’ve even mentioned, there is at least one group for everyone. I know certain individuals with special needs who are deeply depressed because they struggle to fit in with typical peers, but don’t want to be identified as having special needs. As a result, they fall in between the cracks and are very lonely.
A solution is to find “typical” clubs or groups for those with similar interests, whether that’s Anime, computer graphics, chess club, drama, rock collecting, photography, or something else. If a group doesn’t exist, start one! No two people with or without disabilities, is exactly the same, but there is always someone to relate to and connect with. Belonging to a team, a club, a group, being cheered on and supported by its members, and creating friendships which expand to sharing birthdays, vacations, and other activities, is one of the keys to positive self-esteem and lifelong happiness. So, join the club!