7 practical ways you can help a special needs family

When looking at a special needs family, have you ever thought, “I don’t know how they do it” or “I could never do it.” Here is a secret, we are no different than you, trying to do the best we can with our children. But the truth is, sometimes we feel burnt-out in our roles as caregivers. We love our children, but we feel overwhelmed by the extra responsibilities. When you wonder how we do it, we might be barely hanging on.

ways to help special needs families

And here is another truth, sometimes, we could really use your help. How can you help? I asked my friends on Facebook for their feedback, and their responses were surprisingly similar. With their input and my personal experience, here are seven practical ways you can help a special needs family:

1. Babysit

It will not surprise you to know that special needs parents spend a lot of extra time and attention on their children with disabilities. Therapies, doctor appointments, medical equipment, specialists, etc. Even at home, some kids with special needs require a little bit more attention and one-on-one. Let me be blunt here: we need a break!

What would special needs parents like to do when you babysit?

– Go out to dinner with their spouse. Did you know that chances of divorce increase dramatically when there are children with special needs in the home?

– Spend time alone with the typical kids outside the home. Typical kids need time with their parents, and sometimes their time gets sacrificed because of the urgent needs of the sibling with special needs.

– Take a nap. You read that right, you can babysit while the parent takes a nap. Some special needs parents get very little sleep, it is nice to know you can sleep for a couple of hours while someone is watching your child.

Of course these are just a few examples of what special needs parents dream of doing if they had a babysitter. Even two hours is a gift. If the child has medical needs, consider learning how to use medical equipment so your friend can still have a break.

We are so thankful when you come and watch our children, you are a gift to our family when you give us a break as parents.

2. Bring food

Amazing how something so simple helps so much! Not having to worry about dinner makes a day run much better. And you don’t have to make a fancy gourmet meal. Tater tot casserole will do, or spaghetti, or tacos. Actually, you don’t even have to cook, even showing up with a pizza, or a rotisserie chicken from the store is much appreciated.

You want to take it a step further? Organize your small group, mom’s group, or a group of friends to gather some freezer meals. Show up with 5 freezer meals and we will love you forever!

You want to take this even further? What if your group decided to bring a meal once a week for a set number of months?

If you feel like babysitting a child with complicated medical issues would be a stretch, bringing food is always a great option to help hands on!

If you are wondering, “How do I even ask?” How about this, “Hey, I want to bring you a meal, when would be a god day and time for me to drop it off?” It is really that simple.

3. Help clean

You can imagine how easy it is to push housekeeping chores aside when your time is spent in therapy, or visiting doctor’s offices, or on the phone trying to figure out insurance. Sometimes there is no energy to fold the laundry or scrub the toilet. Having someone come and help us clean our house makes our overall feeling of “life” feel a little easier.

You want to take this a step further? Gather your small group of friends or from church and tackle the cleaning together. Blast the music, laugh together. What a rewarding thing to do with a group of people you are close to. And if it is a possibility for the family, ask them to come back in a few hours, and surprise them with a clean house, clean dishes, and laundry that is folded and put away. I guarantee you, you will have fun and feel like you really gave back to someone that will really appreciate it. Hey, they might even want to join in the fun!

4. Take me out

Special needs parents need time with friends.

So ask your friend to go out for coffee and a brownie, or a late night dinner, or just sit in your living room and laugh. Figure out what time works best for them and make it a plan.

Here is a little confession, sometimes, as special needs parents we don’t do a very good job at initiating with our friends, so we need you, we really need you to get us out. We need your friendship more than you realize.

5. Listen

We need you to listen, just listen. No pity. No sympathy. Just listen. We need to know someone hears us.

Ask questions too. It tells us you want to understand more about our life.

6. Help with chores or errands

When you run to the store to get a few items, pick up the cell phone and ask, “Is there anything I can get for you?”

If your kids have soccer practice with one of the siblings, what about offering to pick-up or drop-off the kids?

Rides and quick runs to a store are always helpful.

7. Money or gift cards

Special needs families sometimes have extra expenses, your monetary gifts can help with therapy, or adaptive equipment, or to hire a babysitter.

I mentioned cleaning would be helpful, but I know some families have a hard time letting other people clean their home, so pitch in with your friends and hire a maid to come.

Gift cards are always welcome gifts. Think about restaurants, fast food, groceries, or gas cards.

And finally, thank you. Thank you for your willingness to be a part of our lives, thank you for getting it, thank you for wanting to reach out to us. Knowing you are available makes a difference. It helps us know we are not alone.

Are you a special needs family? What would you add to this list?

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    • Ellen Stumbo says

      Thanks Katie, I do think people want to help, but many don’t know how and they don’t want to be intrusive. Hopefully this will help create community for families that deal with special needs.

  1. Missy says

    Excellent post and so very needed. I know I need this most when we are going through what I call crisis mode. Extreme moments like the hospital or days after coming home from it. Also if something new pops up with my child this helps immensely. You just need people to see you and your family so you do not feel all alone when these times happen.

    • Ellen Stumbo says

      Missy, exactly! I think we want our friends and family to recognize when we do indeed need them.

  2. Kenlor says

    I adopted three special needs kids after raising three birth kids. I turn 50 next month. My husband travels for his job and is away about 15 days (and nights) every month. I. Am. Exhausted. My 21-year-old is like a 6-year-old child. She is home all day with me but we are trying to find her a job in a sheltered workshop situation. My 14-year-old is the most “normal”, which means he is in a full inclusion classroom, and is really struggling with it. He is “borderline mentally retarded”. We have constant school meetings for him. My 11-year-old is in bad shape. She is mentally retarded, autistic, has Fetal Alcohol Effect, AD/HD, OCD and anxiety disorder. She just spent three weeks in a day hospital. She has a behavioral specialist in our home, a therapeutic support staff person, 2 psychiatrist visits a month, a caseworker through our county mental health/mental retardation unit, and is in a small, non-inclusive, specialized classroom with 12 kids and 5 teachers/aides. She steals, she hoards, she flips library chairs over, throws pencils and crayons, screams and yells, etc. I am called to school at least once a week to drive her home because they’re afraid to put her on the bus. We have every cabinet, cupboard, and door in our home locked to keep her from stealing our stuff or, worse, getting into medications or dangerous tools. I feel so alone. Everyone at church says “I’ll pray for you”, and I appreciate that SO MUCH. But where are the hands and feet of Christ? The actual HELP that I so desperately need? I wish every person in our extended family and our congregation could read this article. The only support I have from family is my oldest birth daughter (age 30) and my husband (who is so often gone). Some days, even I don’t know how I do it.

    • Ellen Stumbo says

      Kenlor, first of all, thank you for your sacrifice for your children. Thank you also for sharing your story, sometimes people assume that because they know one family with children with disabilities, that all families are the same. But we all are different, and we all have different challenges. It saddens me when this support does not come from within the church. This is one of my greatest passions, to see the church embrace disability. We have along way to go. I will pray that you will find some support. On the mean time, please stop by Not Alone Parents
      https://www.facebook.com/NotAloneParents that will take you to our website, and I hope you find a supportive and encouraging group. We get it, and we stand together, supporting and encouraging. Would love having you there too!

  3. Bob LaTour says

    Hi Ellen. Thank you for the excellent article on helping special needs families. My son-in-law and daughter have two boys with severe autism. I serve on the pastoral staff at our church and I am writing an article on Helping Special Needs Families. May I use some of your information if I credit you?