What triggers this sense of loss now isn’t just stress over all the paperwork and phone calls in your future, but a growing social isolation. Now is the time when moms and dads can feel singled out. A 2-year-old running around a playground with a stick in each hand, shouting at the other toddlers, may not even be noticed. But when a 4- or 5-year-old does the same thing, it likely will be noticed, and not in a positive way.
Also, at this age, drop-off play dates often begin, and your child may have limitations that now need explaining, like what activities he enjoys and which can overwhelm him, sounds that bother him, or maybe he isn’t yet ready to be dropped off at all.
Lastly, especially in the city, other parents often start a conversation with “What school is she going to?” It can sting when you mention one that caters to special needs, and your potential new friend says something along the lines of “I never heard of it!” It’s less about meanness than it is about a simple desire to “sort you out,” Birnbaum says. “Schools are a currency in a way. In the [NYC] boroughs, at least, it’s often the first slot fellow parents put you in, and then they go from there.”
In all of these situations, intrusion is worst when you come across as clueless. “You need to get ahead of it. You’re in charge of the vibe,” Birnbaum says. Have a line at the ready, and act confident when you use it. “You don’t need to fake exuberance, but you can’t cry, either,” she says. Practice saying your ‘lines’ until you can deliver them smoothly. Watch your body language as well.
The importance of having a circle of support cannot be underestimated. One good friend who is going through the same challenges you are is worth five who can only imagine what you’re going through. Go to nymetroparents.com/special-support to find special needs parent support groups in your area.
Another option is starting a group yourself. Spread the word in your child’s school and your place of worship. Parents who have done it name three things that bolster attendance: providing child care for younger siblings, organizing carpools, and snacks! Establishing a “calling tree” to remind parents of upcoming events also helps keep meetings going strong.
Sarah Birnbaum is a Manhattan-based special needs consultant and special education advisor (nyspecialneeds.com).