How to make your friends and family with special needs kids feel welcome

I post a lot of information on the SNJ social media accounts; it’s part of my role as one of SNJ's Directors. However, there are always going to be posts that create debate.

One that did was the post titled, ‘Things never to say to the parents of an autistic child’ and while some parents identified with it, others felt it wasn't helpful.

This kind of post is often written to express frustration and to show how a thoughtless word can ruin an already-stressed parents' day. But the other side to this is that these articles can make SEND parents seem fierce and angry. Reading these posts may make people outside our special needs experience feel uncomfortable approaching us for fear of saying or doing the wrong thing. I can understand that this may well be true for many people.

As it's almost Christmas and many of us will be visiting or receiving friends and relatives over the holiday season, it's prompted me to write how I would want to be approached in the hope it will help anyone who's a bit anxious about it.  I would love to hear some of your suggestions to so please leave a comment for me at the end.How to make your friends and family with special needs kids feel welcome

Some ideas for a happy meeting with a special needs parent

  • Ask Questions – If you're nervous about what to say, please do ask questions. No-one expects you to know everything about a disability, so don’t be afraid to ask questions.  It is often the assumptions that can cause problems.
  • Be honest – If you don’t know what to say, that’s OK, say so.  It’s far better than saying something that doesn’t make any sense or is misconstrued in some way.
  • Don’t be shy – Just because we have kids that have special needs, doesn’t mean that we don’t want to hear or feel awkward if you talk about your typically developing children!  Sometimes a break from the world of special needs is just what we need!
  • Be Kind – As Thumper says in Disney’s Bambi, If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.
  • Be empathic – Sometimes a listening ear and a big mug of tea is sufficient.
  • Be present – Listen. So often we are not heard as a ‘professional opinion’ is given to us time and time again.  By listening and not feeling the need to give an opinion you can be totally present for your family member.
  • Be patient – You may have extended an invitation to your family member many times only to be told they can’t make it or they cancel at the last minute. Please continue asking, the cancellations generally aren’t personal and commenting negatively will only add to the burden of guilt possibly already being layered on your friend or family member.
  • Keep it simple – If you wouldn’t normally ask personal questions of another person you know to the same extent, then don’t ask this person.  It’s as easy as that, and it can save blushes and awkwardness.

For SEND Parents

Yes, we have to take responsibility too!

  • Check in – Ask in a neutral tone what was meant by a particular remark or comment that you were on the verge of being offended by.  We’ve all been there, had a bad day, then someone says something that could be taken more than one way. Rather than make an assumption, check what the other person meant. If the remark was made by someone you know who’s a ‘serial offender of unhelpful comments’ just ask yourself why you are a) continuing to take any notice of it and b) continuing to give the same emotional response. You can choose whether to be offended or not and deciding not to let it affect you will make you a stronger person.

I have experienced situations where complete strangers feel that my son's disability is up for public discussion and that they can say whatever they want. Instead, I try to remember to ignore it and that I don't owe them an explanation or a response at all.

A final word to our friends and family who really do want to spare us any upset or pain: Please don't shut us down. It's okay to ask us how you can help or offer some emotional support - you don't need to be an expert in special needs. We need your support as much as ever, so when we tell you we’re tired or concerned, or that things are tough, don't be afraid to ask why - the answer may be something that's nothing to do with our child - and it may be something you really can help with that will make you all feel a lot closer and happier.

Angela Kelly
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Angela Kelly

Psychotherapist & SEND parent at Emotions Counselling & Psychotherapy
Angela Kelly is a practising psychotherapist in Surrey. She is the parent of two sons who have autism and ADHD. Angela is Special Needs Jungle's Mental Health Editor
Angela Kelly
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