Beyond Autism Awareness: 3 Ways to Help Affected Families

Mother lying on sofa with daughterApril is National Autism Awareness Month. In our house, we have been all too aware of autism for several years. My son, who recently turned 18, developed autism between his second and third birthdays. As part of his condition, he also suffers from several autoimmune issues that greatly impact his abilities and quality of life. My husband and I have been engaging in therapies and interventions for over 15 years now.

The families I’ve met during this journey, both in my private and professional life, never cease to amaze me with their resilience and determination to get the best care possible for their children. They inspire me daily. But each year, when April rolls around, many such parents get slightly annoyed at the autism awareness efforts they witness. Some people can be seen wearing blue and light blue lights, a practice created by a national autism organization. Others engage in money-raising efforts through 5Ks, walks, and the like. While these efforts are noble, I would much rather see people reaching out personally to families they know and love with gestures of kindness and care.

When my son was diagnosed in 2001, autism rates were starting to climb. Rates at that time were estimated at around 1 in 250. I recall having to explain to other moms on the playground what it meant for my child to have this thing called “autism.” In response, I usually received a puzzled look or an offhanded, well-meaning comment such as, “Well, my son didn’t speak until he was 3 …”

Today, about 1 in 45 children experiences autism in the United States. This means when I talk to people now, they are usually not only aware of what autism is, they know someone who has it or is directly affected by it.

This is why I am a huge proponent of personal, local, grassroots giving—the kind that impacts families directly. Because, as a therapist, I see the effects of autism on families like mine every day. While they tend to put on happy, hopeful faces and love their children fiercely, they worry. They’re depressed and anxious. And they’re exhausted, mentally, physically, and emotionally. Consequently, the smallest gestures often have the greatest impact.

If every unaffected family who knows an autism family reached out in some small way, imagine the difference that could be made and the sense of support that could be felt. Here are a few suggestions for helping families affected by autism in a tangible way:

1. Bring Dinner

A parent once told me, “When your loved one dies or a baby is born, people come out of the woodwork to help. But when your child is diagnosed with autism, no one brings casseroles.”

If nothing else, letting families you love know you’re thinking of them and that you care can make a real difference.

This might sound harsh, but it’s true. People tend to be uncomfortable when faced with bad news. They often don’t know what to do, so they do nothing. If you were to ask an autism family you love, “What can I do for you?” they would most likely politely answer, “Nothing, we’re fine, but thanks.”

So just make dinner sometime and bring it over, just as you would for a friend who had lost a loved one or had a baby. This is a great thing to do not only for families coping with recent diagnoses, but for those who have been on the autism journey for years as well. The challenge is always there, and the need for support never goes away.

2. Give a Gift Card

Many autism families struggle financially. While autism is common, it is also underfunded. Even families who can afford treatments and therapies often have to fight to get their costs reimbursed, and may forgo “luxuries” such as date nights, vacations, or simple trips to the coffee shop. The money they don’t spend typically needs to be saved for the child’s future, as the child will most likely need long-term care when the parents die.

Often, autism parents have little choice but to give up their careers and jobs to be home with their kids. So a small gesture such as a gift card for gas, or one for the local grocery store, can go a long way.

3. Offer to Babysit

This isn’t for everyone, since babysitting for a child with autism can be more challenging than watching a typical child. But when I talk to autism moms and dads, one of the greatest needs they express is childcare support. Without it, they often lack time for themselves and their marriages.

As an autism mom, I’ve found it helpful even to have an extra set of eyes present so I can get housework done, run to the store, or take a nap. Additionally, I’ve had friends offer to take my other child out to the movies or lunch. Help with the kids who don’t have autism takes some of the stress off of overwhelmed parents.

These suggestions for supporting autism-affected families may not be the ones you’re used to hearing, but they can have a tremendous impact. If nothing else, letting families you love know you’re thinking of them and that you care can make a real difference.

This month, let’s go beyond autism awareness. Let’s take action.


  1. Barney, J. (2016, March 21). They’ll Have to Rewrite the Textbooks. UVAToday. Retrieved from
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015). Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) – Data & Statistics. Retrieved from
  3. Talk About Curing Autism (TACA). (n.d.). Latest Autism Statistics. Retrieved from

© Copyright 2016 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Janeen Herskovitz, MA, LMHC, Autism Spectrum Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • candace

    April 7th, 2016 at 2:53 PM

    Anyone will love a good home cooked meal, especially when they have’t had to ask for it! Be a good neighbor and do something nice for that family that you may see struggling but don’t want to ask, and they would never ask either. You know how when there is something very deep going on in your life, just how nice it is to know that dinner is cooked and ready. It takes one more additional thing off of your plate and lets you focus on something more important that could be going on. I can’t tell you how many smiles even a simple little casserole can bring to the faces of a family who is struggling and needs to know that someone is thinking about them.

  • Janeen

    April 7th, 2016 at 7:05 PM

    Absolutely! I couldn’t agree more.

  • rose f

    April 8th, 2016 at 10:20 AM

    One of the biggest issues that I see is that many of us, myself included, can be sort of dare I say scared of things that we do not understand. We may have never had to deal with autism in our lives or that of our own child so we are not really sure how those family dynamics could be different from ours.

    But then again, look at it this way. They are a family just like yours. They love their children just like you do. And they need help, just like we all do whether we are willing to say so or not.

    Do something for them that you would also find kind coming from another person.

  • morgan

    April 9th, 2016 at 12:30 PM

    Any of these things are great to do for any family that could be struggling right now. Death in the family, new baby, any life change where someone could use a little extra help, I think that any of these would be appreciated.

  • Oskar

    April 11th, 2016 at 3:59 PM

    The one thing that I would ask is that you make things that they can eat now and then maybe freeze and out up for later.
    I know that we all want it to be hot and fresh, but others could be doing the same thing and you want them to not feel like they have to eat it all in one day.
    Or maybe you could start a neighborhood list of who is going to do what on which days and this way you would make sure that there is always someone helping out on any given day.

  • Jules

    April 12th, 2016 at 10:28 AM

    For most of us doing good for another person in need will do something that is good for us too.

    It is a cumulative effect that quite frankly I think that we could use a whole lot more of in this world.

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