09/14/2015 12:11 EDT | Updated 09/14/2016 05:12 EDT

How to Be My Friend As a Mom of a Special Needs Kid

Mark Edward Atkinson/Tracey Lee via Getty Images

Friends come and friends go. And if friendships change when you become a mom, then they change even more radically when your child has special needs.

A strange thing happened when my son was diagnosed with autism a few years ago. Some of my friends dove for the hills. They didn't all disappear, but some just gradually dropped off. This post isn't about finger-pointing. I get how hard it is. You don't know what to say without feeling awkward or guilty. And for a while I didn't know what to say, either.

When you learn that your child has a disability, there is a shock period you go through, a dark blanket of grief covers your life in one fell swoop. Suddenly I found I couldn't relate to most parents. I couldn't stand to bear witness to the joys and challenges of raising a regular kid. Playdates involving my son were disastrous, and when there is no common ground between young children, it's hard for parents to hang out.

Of course some friends are keepers. But for a while I looked around, and all I saw were parents in the same rocky boat. My social circle (by necessity?) had shrunk to moms whose kids had, if not autism, then some other special need. We related, yet that troubled me: had autism become a prerequisite for my friendship? Awareness and advocacy are important. Autism plays a pivotal role in my life and probably always will. But just as it doesn't define my son's life, it doesn't define MINE, either.

So don't take this the wrong way, but when we get together, I don't necessarily want to talk about your kids or mine.

I don't want to compare notes about therapies or swap gluten-free recipes. I don't want to commiserate over IEPs or even celebrate our kids' latest achievements, no matter proud we are of them and how far they've come. And ditto if your children are typical.

No, just for an hour or two, I want to remember the person I was before I became a mom to a child with autism. I want to get reacquainted with that woman who had interests and ideas of her own. I want to talk about The Bachelor and the Kardashians. (OK, so maybe not, but you get my point...)

I'm willing to talk about almost anything, frankly. I'm not fussy. I want to sip mojitos and confess celebrity crushes and gossip about people from high school. I want to talk about books and movies and music. I want to ask where you got that cute top, and should I cut my hair or let it grow?

I want to bitch about utterly frivolous and inconsequential things like the way my husband overloads the dishwasher. I want to laugh until my sides cramp and my cheeks hurt. Just for an hour or two I want to forget and remember. And if you happen to ask how my son's doing, whatever you do don't look at me with that apologetic look on your face. He hasn't got cancer. There's no chance of remission. And don't be surprised when I answer "fine" as though you inquired about the weather. Because what do you expect me to say? He's his wonderful, complicated self -- and you know what? So am I.

While we can't pretend that autism never happened, if you're a friend you'll humour me and only bring it up if I do first. Chances are, I won't. Chances are, I need a break. But if I do bring him up, I'll trust that you will be there and that you will really listen, even if you can't pretend to understand.

But whatever you do, please don't give up on me. Chances are, I need you more than you'll ever know.

A version of this post originally appeared on YummyMummyClub.


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