I know, right? It doesn’t really sound like a good thing. But truly? It’s one of the best things that has ever happened to our family. Let me backtrack and explain exactly how it is that a social worker came into our lives, and what it is that she does that is so completely invaluable.

Writing this is bittersweet, because in less than a month Ellie’s case will be closed. I think I feel a little like a swimming student who’s been getting along super-great with a floatation device. “Okay, we’re going to take that off of you now. You can do it! Come on– you’ve got this. You don’t need it anymore,” says the coach. “But I do. I do need this. So give it baaaaaack,” thinks the voice in my head.

Ellie has been doing really well. Her teacher at school noticed towards the end of the year. Other adults we’ve encountered, both socially and in the world-at-large, have noticed (and their positive comments have really been important to Ellie). We’ve noticed at home, too. I can’t say I was that surprised when Lena* (not her real name) brought up closing Ellie’s case. I was starting to feel a little ridiculous getting such wonderful and helpful services when Ellie was clearly doing so well. But, hello denial— I pushed that thought far, far into the recesses of my mind. Because can we really do this? Can we survive without her?

The happy graduate

Back when Ellie was in Kindergarten we were just starting to get some whiffs of how tough things would become. She was struggling at school with peer relationships, and especially with authority figures. We had regular meetings with the teacher, and had even started the process of getting her referred for Special Education Services. We started taking her to see a counselor in hopes that it would help some with her defiance, anger, and frustration. At our second appointment, the couselor asked how we would feel if she referred us to a social worker. At first I was mortified. Did she think we were horrible parents? Did she think that Ellie needed someone to protect her from us and from our parenting? I’m sure she anticipated my reaction– at least a little bit– because she quickly went on to explain that the social worker was not to investigate us, but to help us. To say that I was skeptical would be an understatement. But at that stage, we wanted all the help. So we agreed to start the referral process.

If you are a parent new to a diagnosis, it can be a confusing and scary time. When we learned that Ellie was on the Spectrum it was both a relief and a huge unknown. We felt better knowing that there was a term that would give us an easier way to explain to others something we had basically known for a very long time. But it also gave us a whole new world to navigate. What did we, as her parents, need to do next? What did it really mean? It was like being thrown into a huge, dark cavern with no navigation system. “Here’s a brochure,” someone tells you. “Have fun down there!”

Lena* was our lamp. Because of her experience and expertise, she was able to give us a map to navigate by. We had no idea where to start. She immediately gave us some ideas and suggestions. She was never pushy or intrusive. She helped us to get Ellie referred into the Special Education program at school. Helped us find a child psychologist who would work with Ellie. Helped us find an occupational therapist. Attended meeting after meeting with us to make sure that Ellie got everything that she needed at school. Outside of school, too. She was aware of grant programs and other funding that allowed us to take advantage of several programs that would have been out of our price range otherwise.

It is a gross, gross understatement to say that having a child with special needs can be as consuming as any full-time job you could ever have. Being involved with a knowledgeable and caring social worker made a tremendous difference for everyone in our family. I think, honestly, that it was also protection for us. I don’t know if I can adequately describe what it is like to be out in public with a child who has completely lost control. It’s an experience that we’ve only had once or twice, but something that shook me to my core each time it happened. I had to call the police, the police, on my Kindergartener. It was embarassing. Terrifying. Made me feel like the world’s most awful parent. And in situations like that, your actions, your whole life, are under a microscope. Having someone who knew us and Ellie intimately and also cared for her well-being and safety from a professional standpoint was both reassuring and crucial. During our worst times, I was consumed by a fear that someone would think we were incompetent and take her away from us. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t still haunt me now when I’m feeling especially vulnerable.

Social workers get an unfairly bad rap. I will admit that, before we had one, I thought of them as people who were advocates for children in truly awful situations. Not ever as anyone who could be helpful to me or my family. After all, we were good guys. And when we were first referred I was scared. I was sure that a social worker would be looking for the same types of mistreatment and neglect with which I had always associated them. As a parent really struggling to care for her child and her family, I was terrified that they might find something they thought wasn’t up to standard.

What I learned, though, was that social workers are also there to be a support and a resource. I have not one doubt in my mind that Lena* is one of the most compassionate and helpful individuals in her profession, but I also have no doubt (now) that social workers are nothing to be scared of. So if you find yourself in a situation where your family might have access to social work services, take advantage. It’s one of the best things we ever did.