Wanted: Special Needs Parent Role Models

One thing they don’t tell you when you become the parent of a child with special needs is that a good role model will keep you afloat.


(not Kathy)

(not Kathy)

Mine was Kathy. She  was the first parent of a child with special needs that I connected with. Her son John and my son Matthew were in the kindergarten together in a special day class. John, I learned, had cerebral palsy. Kathy had a bemused smile on her face when she told me this. I wondered what that was all about, but it made me feel less anxious about my situation. Matthew was developmentally delayed, and I was in the process of helping him catch up, certain that this would be the only year that he’d need special education. OK, I wasn’t certain, but I was hopeful.

I was struck by how comfortable Kathy seemed in a room full of 5 and 6 year olds with developmental disabilities. She chased after her mischieveious son John cheerfully when he bolted away with a handful of cookies, maintaining an upbeat conversation the entire time. Seeing this woman looking positive and engaged rather than downbeat and bedraggled gave me hope. Looking back, I think meeting her was my first “Aha” moment special-mom-style. I was going to be OK.

Kathy doesn’t know this, but she was the role model that I needed to get me on the path toward acceptance. I’d like to pass the lessons that she taught me by example on to you:


Special Needs Parent Role Models:

  1. Offer words of encouragement to new parents of children with special needs—not “God will only give you as much as you can handle” or “The limit of human endurance has yet to be reached.” They know that newbies will hear  plenty of that down the road.“ Instead, they say “You seem like a great mom. I know you’re overwhelmed but once you find helpers, and a circle of support, things will improve. I have some names right here…”
  2.  Teach others how to relate to your child by showing them how they do it.
  3. Share resources freely.  These parents pull names and phone numbers out of the air, or from scraps of paper in their purse.
  4. Treat  helpers and their circle of support really really well, because they recognize that these folks are their lifeline and their family.
  5. Know that venting is good, and whining is bad. Period.
  6. Admit it when they are going through a particularly difficult phase with their child, and ask for help. Brainstorming is good. Special moms also like to share their expertise.
  7. After a good venting/brainstorming session, special parent role models take a deep breath and remember how hard it is to be their child. They give their child the admiration they deserve.
  8. If venting and brainstorming are not enough, special parents seek guidance from a professional. They find referrals from other special needs role models or from their physician.

Who is your role model, and what have they taught you?

Are you a role model, or one in training?


More on role models:

Why Autistic Students Need Autistic Role Models

Colin Meloy and Positive Autism Parent Role Modeling


I’ll be your role model. Let me know if you have questions or need resources.






About the author

Laura Shumaker is a nationally recognized writer, autism and disabilities advocate. Her essays have appeared in many places, including the New York Times, CNN, NPR, and in a popular autism and disabilities blog for The San Francisco Chronicle. She’s the mother of three terrific sons, and her oldest son, Matthew, is the subject of her book A Regular Guy: Growing Up with Autism.


  1. Christa says

    I just re-stumbled across your site. This post really made me think. I did have an SN Parent Role model, actually a couple. My first role model was a woman named Ashley. She had 2 boys on the spectrum when I met her, and she was the first person that didn’t seem buried under all Autism stuff that was just thrown at me. She taught me hope and how to break each problem down, dealing with only that problem. I discovered that each of these kids is different and we can’t treat them the same, and that we can manage unappealing behaviors by just focusing on each one by itself.
    At one point, Ashley and her husband decided to try for one more kid (I think she secretly wanted a girl) and I remember being in awe that she would want to try again when she already had 2 on the spectrum. I was drowning with my 1 on the spectrum and my older, who has always been challenging (ADHD, ODD, possible bi-polar). She ended up having a third boy, and I have since lost touch with her since our kids aged out of the program they were in together. Last I saw though, her youngest was showing no signs of Autism.
    I try to be a role model, but I still feel like I’m struggling some on this journey.

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