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Teaching Your Child with Special Needs About Money

Understanding debit cards, creating a budget and practicing purchases.

Spending, saving and budgeting are essential skills for children to learn, but they’re not necessarily easy to grasp. If your child has autism or other developmental differences or special needs, helping them understand money can be even more challenging. But don’t give up. Fundamental financial knowledge is important for eventual independent living, and it can protect them from scams and manipulation—from giving away their lunch money at school in exchange for “friendship” to sharing sensitive financial information over the internet.

And if your child has a device, there’s the issue of in-app purchases. Do they understand that the tap of a button is connected to real money? We connected with local experts for six tips on how parents can make sense out of cash, cards, electronic transfers and other money matters.

1) Understand the challenges.

“Individuals with autism and intellectual or developmental differences often struggle to understand abstract concepts, and instead tend to think in concrete ways,” explains Katherine Bellone Mount, psychologist and director of psychological services, Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities at Children’s Health, and an associate professor with UT Southwestern. Mount notes that even when you’re dealing with physical money, meaning and value aren’t obvious.

Katherine Bellone Mount, photo courtesy of Children's Health. Expert quoted in article about how to teach your kids with special needs about money
Children’s Health pediatric psychologist Katherine Bellone Mount, PhD

2) Start young.

Basic numbers and counting abilities are obviously important and should be coupled with hands-on, realistic practice. For example, use actual dollars and coins to teach your child about money, rather than play bills. To begin the idea of budgeting, Mount suggests that parents take their school-aged children to the store, where they can add up costs of small items and make purchases.

“As children become adolescents and teens, practice can be expanded to using parent-controlled debit cards with pre-set balances and spending limits, and teaching how to budget using either paper-and-pencil worksheets or simple electronic calculations,” Mount adds.

3) Keep the lessons going, at home and elsewhere.

A life skills program can help deepen those skills as your child transitions to adulthood. Paula Baker, program director with North Texas SNAP (Special Needs Assistance Partners), works with individuals with special needs who are age 17 and up.

Paula Baker, program director of North Texas SNAP, expert quoted in article about teaching your kids with special needs about money
Below center: Paula Baker, program director of North Texas SNAP

“I like to focus on how to purchase items and services that they would likely experience,” Baker notes. “We teach the importance of planning ahead, becoming familiar with current prices, being aware when taxes will be added, and learning to divide up their available funds into categories—paying for needs before wants, and understanding their [financial] limitations.”

Baker suggests giving your older son or daughter an allowance to budget. Help them develop categories (phone bill, dining out, entertainment, clothing, etc.); once the designated amount is spent, there is no borrowing from other categories. A good method involves putting the cash for each area in a separate envelope.

“[That’s] a good, concrete way of understanding that when they money is gone for that week, it is gone,” she says. Baker recommends talking to your child about coupons and sales, too.

4) Put extra emphasis on plastic and virtual money.

When it comes to cards or electronic payments, it’s critical to help children understand that they are tied to actual money. After you make a credit, debit or e-money purchase, show your child the statement with the corresponding withdrawal. Tell your child that it’s essentially a loan, and bring the concept full circle when you pay your credit card bill. Also talk about the dangers of putting more on a card than you can afford and why it’s important to keep account numbers safe.

5) Take your time, according to their special needs.

Modeled skills (role playing) and consistent practice are key. Say you want to help your child purchase a snack at the grocery store. “Depending on the child’s level of need, this may be something you practice for several days or weeks at home prior to going to the store [and] showing them what it would look like and the steps involved, such as selecting a snack, checking the price, deciding if you have enough money, and making the purchase,” Mount says.

On the day you go to the store (or make an online purchase, or undertake another money-related task), tell your child what you will be practicing in advance. If it would help your child, prepare a written list or find a visual story of the steps they will complete.

6) Expect mistakes and praise progress.

Just like with any new skill, there will be mistakes along the way. “When these happen, responding neutrally and helping your child learn from the mistake will help promote further learning,” Mount states. Be sure to acknowledge your child’s efforts and praise each success.

More than just a daily skill, understanding and using money can help your child lead a more fulfilling life. “Money is a source of freedom,” says Baker. “Let your son or daughter experience responsibility and choices, and they will have pride in their accomplishments.”

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