When you’re parenting a special needs child, only someone running in your shoes can really understand the marathon of challenges associated with educating that child.
As a former parent educator at a major university in California, and a parent of a child on the autism spectrum, I understand the importance of educating our special children. It takes a village to raise a child. And when that child has special needs, it sometimes takes a village, the neighboring village, and a tribe of warriors!
Finding balance between a child’s disability, a quality education and some fun innovative experimentation, is the greatest challenge of all. With all the therapies, behavioral plans, IEPs, etc., that our kids are subjected to, it’s easy to lose sight of one of the simplest and effective educational tactics: Teamwork. Yes, teamwork, between you and your child’s Special Ed Teacher.
I spent many years listening to parents point fingers and blame the system for their child not receiving a quality education. I too have had my bouts with the system – and teachers whose vocations were sorely misdirected. But thankfully, those teachers are the exception, not the rule.
Understanding how our kids learn is the key to unlocking their full potential. To expect that our kids are going to conform to traditional learning techniques is unrealistic. What is important is for parents to partner with educators. I’m often amazed when parents expect a teacher who is meeting their child for the first time, to know precisely and instantly how to educate them. Knowing my son as I do, I had to coach his teachers so they were better prepared with the most effective techniques to reach him. When the collaboration between his teachers and I were successful, and it took time, my son excelled in the classroom. The one thread all parents of special needs children have in common, despite the disability, is patience.
Let me share with you what I’ve discovered in “educating the educator” over the years. It’s important that we do not fall into the “disability trap.” I like to think my son’s only disability is what others perceive of him. For the most part, our kids have the “ability” to learn and be a vital part of society if we treat them as such. I often tell my son, now 23 years old, that he has a special “ability” that makes him different than most. I never let my son’s autism serve as an excuse for unwanted behavior. There was always a consequence associated with his actions at home and in school. Far too often, I’ve seen parents assume their child’s behavior is forgivable or worse, expected to be tolerated because of their son or daughter’s disability — a big mistake. True, we cannot correct our special needs kids as we might a typical child, but there has to be consequences nonetheless. It should be no surprise that our kids’ behavior is influenced by what they are expected to do at home or what they are doing in the classroom.
Another habit we tend to fall into as parents is letting the clutter of our daily lives obstruct active participation in our children’s education. Special Education classes are not daycare for our kids. If we just take the time, we can find a lesson in everything we encounter during the day. Make going to the grocery store a classroom when you go shopping with your child. Assign your child a task prior to leaving the house and make a game of it. You would be surprised how a little advance notice and giving kids something to make them feel important, can alleviate meltdowns. Something as simple as having your child keep track of how many items you are placing in your cart; having them push around their own cart with a list of things they have to get or giving them the responsibility to assist the clerk bagging up your purchases. Think outside the box according to your child’s age and functioning level. Granted going to the grocery store is a time consuming event in my house, but I will take the extra time over a meltdown any day.
Making a game of learning new things, experimenting with fun and innovative confidence building and educational experiences with my son led me to my current career and passion as Director of Group Development and Co-founder of Autism on the Seas.
Happily trading in my suit and tie for a pair of shorts and a t-shirt, I work for a unique company that provides special needs families a way to vacation, relax and have fun, like “normal” families. When folks ask about what we do, I like to have our families do the talking because it is their stories of reconnecting, making life-long friends with other families who have similar special needs lifestyles and, most moving, the transformations and breakthroughs that take place with our familes’ special needs children.
As I mentioned earlier, and based on my experience, it’s all about managing a balance of a child’s disability with a team-oriented educational approach AND introducing unexpected fun, and innovative experiential activities that are not classed as therapeutic.
Our special needs vacations have had profound effect on both families and children with autism and other cognitive, intellectual and developmental impairments. Even as the group director, I can’t give you one irrefutable reason why these group vacations have this impact, but I can point to a number of factors that we believe are key contributors:
- Exposure to a new non-therapeutic, unrestrictive and uniquely fun setting
- Warm, caring and playful staff: AotS’ young energetic staff is comprised of experienced and caring professionals who work with children and adults with ASDs, Down Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy and other cognitive, intellectual and developmental impairments
- Respite time for typical siblings and other family members to reconnect – difficult to do with a special needs child at home
- Parents building relationships and lifelong friendships with other AotS parents with similar special needs lifestyles – creating a valuable support network
- Normalcy, belonging and dignity – new perspectives and hope for their child
Learning plateaus are far from uncommon with special needs kids. Just like typical kids, special kids get bored, too. There is nothing better than broadening a kid’s horizons in a new and fun setting. Teaming with your child’s teacher and discovering innovative alternatives inside and outside of the classroom is the key. Let’s face it, when we are having a good time at work aren’t we more productive? In school when we had that one special teacher that made us laugh, didn’t we learn more and look forward to that class? Our kids are no different! Make learning fun, interesting and paired with something of interest to the child, then sit back and reap the rewards of watching your child reach their full potential.
Jamie Grover is Director of Group Development for Autism on the Seas, a division of Special Needs on Vacation, which caters to all travelers with any developmental disability. For more information, visit www.AutismontheSeas.com.