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Encouraging Self-Sufficiency in Your Child with Special Needs

It’s our instinct as parents to help our children, but here's how to avoid learned helplessness.

As a parent, you feel as if it’s your duty to fix things. A scraped knee, a broken toy — whatever needs mending, you provide solutions for your child. But what happens when your child is diagnosed with a physical, educational or behavioral challenge?

When Brenda Batts—mom of two and founder of Focus on the Future Training Center in Plano, an education center for children in pre-kindergarten through grade 12 who have autism and other mental disabilities—learned of her son’s autism, she was rattled to her core. Like other parents, she was used to having all of the answers, but she says, “At that time, I felt as though I could do nothing to help my child.”

Batts says she grieved over the diagnosis for two weeks, knowing that her son would battle behavioral difficulties for the rest of his life. But Batts, who has a master’s degree in special education, decided that the best thing she could do for her son, who was diagnosed at 2 and a half, was to teach him independence. So, when she was confronted by situations in which Alex looked to his mom for help, “I had to put the moment in perspective and tell myself (within reason) that if he doesn’t learn now, when will he learn?” she explains.

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According to Amy Saba Ornelas, occupational therapist and director of Dallas Occupational Therapy Services for Kids (D.O.T.S.) in Addison, “one of the biggest things I see parents struggle with is finding ways to teach children how to do things on their own.” She often sees kids exhibit “learned helplessness,” a term describing how children avoid learning how to complete tasks on their own that are within their capacity, says Saba Ornelas.

So how can parents avoid learned helplessness and, instead, help their children achieve as much self-sufficiency as possible? Batts and other local experts share their advice for teaching independence.

See the Child First
“A child is a child first, then a child with disabilities,” says Batts. “If you as a parent see a child’s disability first, you literally drop a curtain over all of the things he might be able to accomplish. You’ll never be able to see your child’s potential,” she explains.

In addition, when parents see the essence of the child before they see the child’s disability, parents can see what’s in the heart of every child: resilience. “There are some children I meet and I know the parents think, ‘He can’t do that,’ but the truth is that kids find a way,” says Belinda Williams, executive director of education at Therapy 2000 in Irving, a pediatric in-home healthcare agency that provides physical, occupational and speech therapy services.

Set High Expectations
Parents must educate themselves on their child’s condition — through medical resources, healthcare providers, online forums and more — but not count out his or her achievements just because research may cast a particular skill in a negative light. “The biggest and most important factor in any child’s success is the parent’s expectations,” says Saba Ornelas. “If you don’t expect them to succeed, they’ll never get there.”

Batts agrees. “When my son was younger, he had very severe behavior challenges, like biting and hitting,” she says. “Nevertheless, I knew that anything was possible. I couldn’t let a negative thought cross my mind because I might have limited his success.” Alex, 18, is now able to manage his behavior and attend school at his mother’s education center.

“Kids can read our expectations and can tell if their parent expects them to perform a task just from your body language. They are very intuitive,” adds Williams.

Make a Plan
Strategize your child’s priorities when it comes to working toward independence. “You need a map,” says Batts. First, she says, you must work to eliminate behavior difficulties. “It’s very hard to try and teach an unruly child how to tie his shoes,” she explains. “Focus on what’s most important first.”

If you’re working with an occupational or physical therapist, your child will undergo an introductory assessment. The therapist will note any barriers preventing the child from completing the tasks, such as an absent limb, behavior challenges, flexibility and more, explains Williams. “Then, we look at what tools or skills we can give the child to achieve their goals,” she adds.

Parents (and the child’s primary physician) must be onboard to help support the child reach his or her accomplishments. “There are some times when a parent says that they just want the child to be able to feed himself,” explains Williams. “But what they don’t ask themselves is, ‘What if my child could dress himself, too?’ You can’t just choose what seem to be easily attainable goals.”

Be Patient
One of the most common challenges parents face, Saba Ornelas says, is finding the time for kids to complete tasks, such as tying their shoes. “It might take them a much longer time to tie the laces, and parents might have to get out the door. But the child is never going to learn without adequate time and a parent’s support,” she says.

For example, wake up earlier to allow your child to brush her own teeth at her own pace. Yes, she might practice this skill in occupational therapy, but unless she does the skill in a practical life setting, she might not remember how, explains Saba Ornelas.

It is critical to patiently allow your child to practice skills in his home environment, especially if they learned them at a therapist’s office, says Williams.

Many parents with special-needs children “have a fierce urgency of now,” says Batts. “Whatever it is that you either teach your child or fail to teach your child — these things could literally be the difference between independence and institution.” But your child might not understand that. So, she explains, keep the pressure for success off the child and, instead, encourage him to succeed on his own timetable.

Emphasize Independence and Space
“Children with special needs constantly have people next to them, asking if they can help the child even before he tries something for himself,” Saba Ornelas says. Avoid this setting at home.

“I might let the child sit down on the stool to tie his shoe and then walk across the room to observe,” she says. “I emphasis the distance, and at times there will be a child who will look up at me and expect me to help.” If the child does need assistance, focus on making them a part of the activity, she explains.

“Space is opportunity,” says Williams. “Parents want to nurture their children — by nature parents are protective. But you must let your child work through this frustration by himself,” she adds. “Once they get a taste of success, they’ll want to keep going.”

This article was originally published in November 2009.

Image: iStock