Monday, January 11, 2016

I don't mean to be rude, but... What it's like to parent special needs children

Yesterday, I read a Facebook post by a friend of mine. I asked her permission to post it here and she graciously agreed. Here is the expanded version of that post, written by the harried mom of two special needs children. I think it will resonate with many of you. And even if you don't have a child with special needs, it's an important read for all of us.

Anonymous woman in hat by George Hodan

To the Kind Soul Who Complimented My Hat

I'm sorry.

I'm sorry that when you went out of your way to tell me how much you liked my hat, all I could do was impatiently look past you, mumble a thank you, and dash off into the crowd. I promise you, I really wanted to stay and chat, to tell you how much I looked forward to our next book club meeting, and to ask you for the recipe for the potato salad you'd brought to the last church picnic. I do have manners. I would love nothing better than to have a lighthearted conversation with you... or with anyone else for that manner.

I thought that when my kids got older I'd be able to go places and talk to people without rushing in and out, brushing rudely past people who are trying to be friendly and chat. Then, I found out that I have two children on the autism spectrum who required varying degrees of constant supervision. So I still find myself racing through crowds, trying to keep my kids in sight and ignoring friendly overtures. 

I promise you, I'm not being deliberately rude or unfriendly. I'm not arrogant or snobby. I'm worried sick that my hell-bent-for-leather high-functioning son is going to topple a frail, elderly person, or dash in front of a car. Or I'm rushing my Asperger's son out from underneath fluorescent light fixtures before he succumbs to the meltdown he's been hovering on the brink of since we left home.

When I'm looking past you, only half-hearing you, it's because I'm trying to locate my children before they can raid the refrigerator or scald someone with the Keurig. Or, I'm listening to my son's voice, raised in anger and trying to locate him so I can avert the meltdown, argument, disagreement, or fistfight brewing.

If I'm sharp and short with my kids, ordering them to "SIT!" it's because I have been run ragged since before dawn, mediating disputes and having attempts at correction met with rants, doors slamming, violent outbursts or outright screaming matches. While they're sitting there in apparent docility, I am exhausted and on edge waiting for the next melodramatic scene.

The simple joy of going to church as a family is a stressful nightmare for me. Any family outing is as exhausting as hauling a carload of sugared-up toddlers to the zoo and requires the same vigilance.

At the end of the day, I am numb with mental, physical, and emotional fatigue and often near tears. Even though I've been out in public and exchanged brief chit-chat with people, I still feel isolated and alone because I was never able to relax and be completely present. When I do get a chance to sit down and socialize away from the children without having to keep one eye on the clock to pick them up, or one eye on my phone in case I need to rescue the babysitter or other caregiver from a meltdown, I am still stressed, overwhelmed, and left feeling on the outside of things.

So when you encounter me in public, please be forgiving of my awkward social graces, my inattention, my too-eager friendliness. I'm afraid as a result of having kids on the autism spectrum, I am becoming like them. I used to be a normal, interesting, sociable person -- just ask the friends who have known me since before I became a mom to special needs kids.


A mom of six and a grandmother of four, Cali Hicks is a former freelance journalist turned SF novelist writing under the name JC Cassels. She is currently raising her second crop of kids with her husband in a century-old house on a mini-farm in a tiny agricultural community in South Georgia. She spends her days writing and trying to figure out where she left her glasses. Visit her blog at and her website at where you can order her books.


  1. I have three kids on the spectrum, and I feel your feels. While other parents are talking about the sports medals their kids are winning, we're just relieved for a day we didn't get a phone call from the office after an outburst. While they're talking about what college their children will attend, we're heartsick that they won't be able to even have a normal job or live alone. We try to model family interactions for them--and every long once in awhile we see that empathy in an action reflected back. It's like a beam of sunshine through a storm. Our victories are so much smaller in comparison with many other parents--but they're magnified beyond measure. Keep fighting the good fight, my friend. :)

    1. Thanks for taking the time to share a bit of your story and to encourage Cali in her parenting journey.


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