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Jan 19

How to Help Your Child with Special Needs be More Independent

By Mike Kunin, Director of Rhinebeck Campus at Ramapo for Children Special Education Articles Add comments
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The ultimate goal of a parent is the independence of their child.  Parents try to set the stage perfectly – with love, support, encouragement, guidance and nurturance. As different developmental stages occur, opportunities emerge to foster skills that will lead to independence.  We want our kids to be ready when these chances happen.

This process holds additional complexities for parents of children with special needs. Everyone struggles with the age-old question of when to ‘let go’ at each developmental stage.  And the answer for every child and parent is different.  However, just because developmental progress occurs in a more idiosyncratic or even delayed fashion doesn’t mean that the moments for these decisions on how much to let go and transitions in parental behavior aren’t arriving at all.  They are, and with a special needs child, a parent’s approach to fostering independence needs to be even more intentional and sophisticated.

Parents always need to be mindful of what their special needs child can do. Parents understandably focus on addressing delays as well as any difficult or challenging behavior they may be encountering.  These issues are the ‘squeaky wheels’ that get the grease right away. But too often, this represents a passive approach on the part of parents.  Don’t just react to behavior.  Make it clear that you expect certain behaviors. Expect as much of your child as possible.  You can always lower the bar, if needed.  The baseline where the child starts out may be moved, but the desired end results are the same.

To this end, you should approach everyday tasks with eventual independence in mind. If we put that goal aside, kids will pick up on our low expectations.  Try developing sets of routines to follow in a specific order in the mornings and evenings. Use the bathroom, eat breakfast, brush teeth, and get dressed.  Use a picture schedule or checklist.  Go over the routine before commencing activity.  Assign household chores in the same way that you would with a typically developing child, offering additional structure and supervision if needed.  Create opportunities for your child to make choices (what to wear in the morning, what to pack for lunch).  Involve them in cleaning up whatever messes they help create. Let them set or clear the table at meals. In short, expect the same things you would expect from any kid while modifying the tasks to your child’s particular needs. You can allow for partial participation in an activity by reducing the number of elements required to complete it.  Remember that, in all likelihood, your predisposition is to evaluate your child’s capabilities as being lower than they really are.

By now, many of you are reading this and thinking, “He’s talking about higher functioning special needs children than my child.” I’m not.  No matter what your child’s functional level, kids respond well to expectations and poorly to the absence of them.  That’s why the approach of sitting back and waiting to see what behaviors confront you is not the optimal way to help your child grow. When you do see negative behavior, which may be often, resist the temptation to see it as a function of a bad day, or mood, or habit. Instead, see it as your child’s attempt to communicate effectively, to seek your assistance, to adapt to a change or new expectation. Regardless of whether your child talks too much or never says a word, your special needs child communicates effectively, just differently. Therefore, your responses need to be direct, sincere, and confident. Tell your child exactly and specifically what you want.  Make sure to put the goals of skill building and independence at the forefront of those expectations.  And, whenever possible, use humor.  A smile or laugh always takes the edge off of any interactions.  With more focused, goal directed actions, the more useful and enjoyable managing challenges can be.

Of course, there is a limit to what you can do in your house and under your direction when the goal is independence. Playgroups and after-school programs in an inclusive setting (sports, crafts, other recreational activities) all play an important role.  Whenever possible, try to find programs where you can drop your child off at the beginning and pick them up at the end (or transition to that over time).  The more non-school related activities your child can do without you around, the better.  Eventually, graduate to sleepovers (they can be with relatives or other kids’ families, if appropriate). Keep moving up to the highest levels of childhood independence experiences, such as residential summer camp, just as you would for your other kids.

Many of you will have a hard time imagining this.  Imagine it. Residential experiences like summer camp constitute simulated independence, but in a highly structured, well supervised environment.  The counterintuitive parental perception is that this should only be considered for higher functioning children. On the contrary, the more limited or delayed a child is, the more important these experiences are.  Every child will eventually move on to adulthood and a life more or less independent of their parents.  Childhood is the time when they learn how to do this.  Many parents miss the boat on this notion and start incorporating these experiences much later in life than they otherwise would. They then find themselves trying to cram such experiences into the later teen years in a hurry to get their child ready for young adult life away from them.  Start earlier.  Plan.  Be more intentional.  As the needs of a special child increase, so too do the range of approaches we should use to support them towards independence.

About Ramapo for Children

Ramapo for Children believes that all children seek the same things: to learn, feel valued, and experience success.  Ramapo helps children align their behaviors with their aspirations through four program areas: Camp Ramapo, a residential summer camp that serves over 550 children ages 6 to 16 who face social emotional, or learning challenges; the Staff Assistant Experience, a transition-to-independence program for young adults who are on the cusp of self-sufficiency; Ramapo Training, which provides parents, educators, and youth workers with practical tools for managing difficult behaviors and fostering environments that support success; and Ramapo Retreats, year-round adventure-based experiences for youth and adults that provide strategies for successful communication, teamwork, and leadership. For more information about Ramapo for Children, please visit www.ramapoforchildren.org or contact Elissa Harel Ryan at eryan@ramapoforchildren.org or 646-588-2310.


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