Tuesday, May 3, 2011

What You Should Know About Special Needs Kids - A Series

I'm going to do something a little different regarding my posts for the rest of this week.

I guess living with a pastor for almost 20 years has rubbed off on me just a little so I'm going to begin a series of posts titled, "What You Should Know About Special Needs Kids".

I'm not good enough to use fancy alliteration or have the post titles spell a word by the end of the week but I do hope that you find the information gives you just a bit of insight into the world of special needs children and their families.

One very crucial thing to remember when dealing with a special needs individual is that behavior is communication.

Many people with special needs have speech issues.  They may be completely nonverbal or talk in gibberish.  They may be able to echo things they hear only one time, such as lines from a movie or commercial jingles.  They may be able to speak just perfectly but are unable to communicate in socially acceptable ways, such as following a flow of conversation, knowing when to let someone else speak, or just standing too close to someone while talking.

All of this means it's very important to watch for behaviors.  Behavior will tell you what words cannot and will often reveal how someone with special needs perceives what is going on in a particular situation.

Negative behaviors can often mean an overloaded sensory system.

Think a crowded Mexican restaurant with a wandering Mariachi band, a fancy flowing water fountain near the table, and a group of waiters singing "Happy Birthday" to a group across the room from you at a table brightly decorated with balloons.  It's simply too much for some special needs individuals to absorb and filter through.  Things could seem to be going fine and then all of a sudden, a complete and total meltdown ensues.

It would be like taking a child who has spent the bulk of his life in an orphanage with very little contact from outsiders to Disney World.  The masses of people, the mingling of all different languages, the variety of colored dress, the screams of people on roller coasters, the smells of various foods.... it's just complete sensory overload.

And while it might be easy for us to recognize that taking that orphan to Disney World might be a shock to his system, sometimes we forget that for a special needs child, a simple visit to the mall or a restaurant can feel the same way.

Negative behaviors can also be an expression of frustration.  A child with special needs is attempting to express a want or need and is not being understood.

Imagine how you would feel if you simply wanted some water yet you could not say it in a clear and understandable way so no one is able to give you a drink.

Think of being a visitor in a foreign country where you do not speak the language and you have no interpreter.  You are lost and need to get directions back to your hotel.  You think you are asking this quite clearly, complete with gestures and facial expressions, yet no one seems to understand you, let alone give you what you need.  Frustrating, right?  You might feel like hollering, kicking the ground, or raising your arms in anger.

Unclear expectations are another common reason for negative behaviors.

You might need to transition your special needs child from one activity to another but he doesn't understand what's coming next or why.

I am reminded of my college days, trying to sort through class notes to determine exactly what my English professor wanted me to include in an essay.  While I thought I hit the mark, the grade I received showed that her expectations were quite different from what I had perceived them to be.

So what can you do to help eliminate some of these negative behaviors?

The first thing to remember is that it's important to look beyond behaviors to see if the source of the resistance can be identified.  Try to remember what occurred right before the negative behavior to see if it can be avoided next time.

It might be helpful to keep a journal so that you have a tangible record of events, including time of day, people involved and settings, along with the resulting behaviors.  This may help identify any patterns in behavior.

Be aware of the environment.  What can seem welcoming to some people can be overwhelming for special needs kids.  Resist the urge to greet them loudly with a big hug or pat on the back.  Provide a quiet space where they can go to regroup if you sense a negative behavior coming on.  Good quiet space ideas include low lighting, a bean bag chair or other soft cushions, headphones, possibly a bubble lamp or fake fish aquarium lamp.... you get the idea.

Some children may be able to remain in a busy classroom yet just need some things to help settle them when they begin to feel agitated.  Things like hand "fidgets", silly putty, stress balls and the like can get out some of that nervous energy and allow them to concentrate without having to actually leave the room.

Try to visit popular places, such as malls, restaurants, and playgrounds at less busy times of the day.  Avoiding peak high traffic times will make these occasions much less stressful for everyone involved.

Instead of taking your child to a restaurant at supper time when it's likely to be crowded and noisy, try eating out at breakfast instead.  It'll be quicker, cheaper, and less busy.  It'll give your child a chance to practice things like being seated, placing an order and waiting for his food in a more relaxing environment.  And don't bring your child when he's starving - it'll make the wait for food excruciating.

And always be prepared for the possibility of an unexpected wait.  Bring handheld electronic games, crayons or markers, play-dough, snacks... whatever will help keep your child entertained when a wait is simply inevitable.

Remember to be flexible.  The best laid plans often go awry.

You may have planned all week to take your child to the playground at 9 AM Friday morning to practice climbing up and going down the slides.  He may sleep in instead.  Or wake up cranky.  Or let you know he's not at all interested.  Maybe it's raining.  Don't make a mountain out of a molehill.  We all know that waiting for the right moment is so much better than trying to "force" an activity.  Remember those famous lines uttered by parents the world over - "We are going to (fill in the blank) and we are going to have fun whether you like it or not!".  While a little nudge in the right direction can be a good thing, an all out shove can make for a miserable day for everyone.

When things start to heat up in my house, usually because I am being insistent on attempting something new with Lily, and everyone starts to get just a little bit tense, I often hear my oldest daughter singing these lines:

"Let it be... let it be... let it be... oh, let it be."

It's a gentle reminder that sometimes, we just have to let things be.  Tomorrow is another day and we can try again.

Last but not least, lighten up.  Enjoy life.  When we go to Hill Country Galleria, I let Lily play in the splash pad, even in her good clothes.  I know, I know.  Call me crazy but that little girl loves the water.  It is one time that I see her utterly and completely joyful.  And that is precious to me.  The smile on that kid's face more than makes up for the fact that she might have to make the walk back to the car in nothing but a Pull-Up and parents are questioning what kind of mother I am.

Many times I pick Lily up from church and her dress is quite damp, her bloomers are in a plastic bag, and her shoes are squishy.  Why?  She has simply been visiting the fountain/outdoor baptismal in the courtyard.  Do I get all bent out of shape about it because she's not going to walk out of the church looking like a proper preacher's kid?  Heck no.  I'm just happy that she had a great morning and loved every minute she was on the church campus.

Do I get discouraged sometimes?  Sure.

Do I wish I could just load my kid up and head to the park without a care in the world?  Of course.

But Lily Bird has taught me to look for the good, the positive, the happy, in every single day.  It's there.  And her sweet face is a constant reminder to not let those moments pass by without taking notice.

Whether or not she ever utters a word, her behavior is how she speaks to me.  

All I have to do is listen.


  1. This is extremely helpful, not only to parents of special needs kids, but for those of us who do not have one. I have a niece who is finally getting tested for autism, but for so many years, we just assumed her behavior was due to environmental issues, etc. ...Oh, how it could have benefited me to read this a few years ago--possibly, it could have helped prevent some critical and judgmental thinking on my part.
    But, now that I sub in Sp Ed classes, I am much more aware of how to read behaviors...and hopefully, listen more.
    I hope to see Lily again in the very near future!
    Thanks, Lana!

  2. Holy amazing! This is EXACTLY what I've been trying to say but in the best way possible. I work as a special needs gymnastics coach and I have kids across the board. Non-verbal all the way to sometimes too verbal :). I have kids who scream so loud, you can hear them before they enter the building but I try to remind people who don't understand that he/she is trying to communicate his/her needs. If you couldn't talk and you wanted to tell me to stop because you didn't like what we were doing, you'd scream...eventually you'd start hitting too. I have a different mindset when I'm working with those kiddos. I try to see what's going on from their eyes, why the melt-down happened, and how we can avoid it next time. Can we change the lesson to a quieter time? Turn the lights off? We can make it work. Thank you so much. I'm sooo going to print this and make a copy for my boss.

  3. This is a clear explanation of an essential truth that so many do not understand. Thank you.


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