6 Types of Support Groups for Parents of Special Needs Children

Choose the Group That Meets Your Needs

If you're a parent of a child with special needs, you may feel isolated and alone. But believe it or not, there are about 6.6 million special needs children in American public schools, making up approximately 13 percent of the school population. Assuming two parents per kid, there are something like 13 million special needs parents in the United States (give or take, and with lots of room for error!).

With so many special needs families out there, there are many types of support and advocacy groups to join. Some groups are intended for emotional support while others are more pragmatic. Some are purely local, while others are national or even international in scope. Some are all about political advocacy while others provide buddy programs and outings.

You may or may not decide to join a support group. If you do, however, you have plenty of choices. Here are the different types of groups available; to find one that suits your needs, just ask around or check Google!


Emotional Support Groups

Small group of people in community center

Barry Rosenthal / Getty Images 

There are many reasons why families with special needs might want emotional support. Discovering a child has special needs can be devastating and difficult. Coping with special needs can be exhausting and overwhelming. Dealing with fallout from extended family can be trying. Handling financial worries can be paralyzing. When facing serious emotional difficulties, it's always helpful to meet others who have been there and done that. Sometimes another person's experiences or solutions can be more helpful than any therapist.

If time is short, or if you feel uncomfortable about sharing personal feelings with a local group, you can also consider online support groups. These offer the support you may need with the added bonus of relative anonymity. Organizations like ​Parent to Parent will actually match you with a parent mentor who has lived through similar experiences.​


School-Based Groups

Most American school districts have parent groups dedicated specifically to families with special needs students. These groups are, obviously, not anonymous. Rather, their purpose is to discuss and advocate for the needs of special needs children in the local district. They may also invite speakers on relevant topics, including members of the district staff who may be able to answer parent concerns and questions.

School-based groups, while they are by no means therapeutic, can be extraordinarily helpful. Local parents know how to address issues in the school, where to find the best therapists, what kinds of programs are available, and which are worth your time. Local parents are also natural friends, and their kids may become friends with your child.

On the downside, parents may not agree with one another about what the district should be offering or paying for. Parent A may feel strongly about inclusive classrooms while Parent B is advocating for specialized support programs. Parent C may have a child with mild issues who needs a learning specialist while Parent D is frustrated at the lack of appropriate educational tools for their physically disabled child.


Regional Groups

Some regions are home to support organizations that provide resources, services, and support to parents in a particular geographic region. These are usually formal non-profits with at least some paid staff and volunteers.

An example of such a regional group is the Asperger/Autism Network (AANE) which serves families with autistic members in the New England area. In addition to providing webinars, speakers, and resources, the organization also runs support group programs for a huge range of people.

There are support groups specifically for parents of teenage boys, parents of teenage girls, parents of children, parents of tweens, adults married to people with autism, single adults with autism—in short, if you have a family member with autism you'll find a face-to-face support group that is experiencing exactly the same challenges and issues that you're facing.

The downside of a regional organization is that it may be a long distance from where you live. That means you may have to either commute to your support group or connect online.


National Groups

National organizations are full-fledged, large-scale non-profits, but that doesn't mean they can't provide local support to parents. Some, like Easter Seals, Variety Club, and The ARC, have local chapter offering a wide range of services to both parents and kids.

In some ways, getting connected with a national organization can be enormously helpful. Staff members are connected with and knowledgeable about everything from social security to adult services to housing, and they can help with finding services, funding, schools, housing, programs, and even employment for your child.

Of course, national organizations won't be able to give you the parent-to-parent insights or supports you might get from a school or local group. So it may be in your best interest to mix and match.


Advocacy and Public Policy Groups

Advocacy and public policy groups aren't support groups in the typical sense of the word. While they help support the funding and programs that make daily life possible for many families, they rarely provide any one-on-one advice, groups, or even programs. Some, however, do a lot more than just lobby and advocate. For example, The American Diabetes Foundation offers programs such as summer camps as well as awareness events, local calendars, and help with local fundraising.

Whatever your child's disorder, you'll find a national organization dedicated to helping. You won't find local friends, but you will find information, opportunities to vote for issues that concern you, fundraisers, and other ways to support the cause.


Online Groups for Specific Needs and Interests

You're starting a new course of therapy for your child, and you're looking for others walking the same road. Or you're going through a divorce and trying to figure out how to tell your special needs child. Or you want to talk in-depth about the ins and out of which educational methods are most effective for children with specific learning disabilities.

Chances are your local support group won't be much help. Nor will your school group, or even your disorder-specific national organization. You need to find people who know exactly what you're talking about and who talk your language.

When you're looking for a very small, intense, focused group, your best option is to go online. That's where you'll find people from every state in the union (and from other countries around the world) who just happen to share your particular concern or direction. No matter what you want to talk about, chances are there's a group for you.

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