Since becoming a parent of special needs children, I have found it difficult to make and maintain friendships and as a result my social life has somewhat shrunk. It wasn’t always like this. When I first started out on this parenting adventure with my first born, I was like most other mothers - enjoying get-togethers at toddler groups, the coffee and cake mornings at each others houses, the visits to the local park. These opportunities gave me welcome moments in which to share my joys and worries about motherhood and to develop a network of friendships. Later as my daughter and her friends moved into school and developed mini social lives through the abundance of school clubs, parties and out-of-school activities, there came more opportunities to connect with other parents. It was a lovely to feel part of a community but unfortunately it didn’t last.
The arrival of my son a few years later suddenly launched me into the world of special needs, exhaustion and growing isolation. Even as a baby, my son’s responses to the world propelled me to do things differently; to suddenly withdraw from a social situation or a public place because of my son’s reaction to something or other. And as he moved into toddlerhood and learnt to walk the challenges grew as I spent most of my time either running after him or dealing with very difficult behaviour whenever we were out and about. It sounds ridiculous but I was never still enough, or relaxed enough, to have a proper conversation with anyone. I was always on alert to any changes in my son’s behaviour and attempted escape missions. Consequently mixing with other mums started to become difficult and it was sometimes easier just to stay at home and let my son become engrossed in his Lego or toy cars. As he progressed into school his social difficulties became pronounced with very few party invites or opportunities to play at other childrens’ houses and little or no involvement in school clubs or out of school activities. As well as the upset over my son’s social exclusion, I also missed out on opportunities to get to know the parents of my son’s class mates and I started to find myself on the edge of the school community.
Yet somehow I managed to hang on to my old friends during my son’s early years but even some of these relationships started to become strained after my son’s diagnosis and school refusal a few years later. I could sense that they couldn’t understand why my boy was autistic and why he suddenly developed agoraphobia and couldn’t leave the house. Conversations became stilted; no-one knew what to say. Slowly invites started to become less and I started to find myself feeling even more isolated. In part though, it wasn’t always their indifference or embarrassment or whatever it was they felt about our situation but also my responses to our very difficult situation. I was exhausted and so preoccupied with my son’s situation that I just didn’t have the energy to keep up with friends or to manage a social life. I also found it difficult to explain our situation or to ask for help for fear of putting people off even more. If you think talking about adult mental health problems is taboo, then talking about mental health problems in children is even more taboo in parenting circles.
Eighteen months later though and I have recently learnt how wrong I was in not keeping up communication with some of my oldest friends. During the bank holiday weekend me and my husband became reacquainted with a couple of old friends who we hadn’t seen since my son’s agoraphobia a couple of years earlier. It was a lovely meet up. It was one of those where it never felt like we had had a break in our friendship; we all just slotted back to how we used to be, laughing and giggling about our exploits as parents and individuals. And it was during this get-together that we felt able to discuss our son’s issues with our friends to which our friends responded by offering us help. We were both touched and appreciative of this and we are now looking forward to further social occasions with them.
But I think there is a point in this for every parent of special needs kids. Whilst some people may avoid us because they can’t deal with our situations, others can and to those friends we must try and keep communication lines open and accept their help whenever it is offered.