Wednesday, May 4, 2011

What You Should Know About Special Needs Kids - A Series... Part 2

So yesterday's post ended on a nice note, don't you think?  "Her behavior is how she speaks to me.  I just have to listen."  Sounds good.

But in reality, even if a parent or caregiver is doing everything they know to do regarding "listening" to behaviors, that doesn't mean that negative behaviors won't occur.

Every day is different.  Even when you strive to maintain a pretty disciplined routine, unexpected events still happen.  You simply can't plan out everything in life.  (Our Lily Bird is a fine example of that but we won't get into that story right now....)

When someone asks how old your child is, they are, of course, referring to his chronological age.  And while that is something to be aware of, the more important thing to understand about a special needs child is his "developmental" age.

Now, it would not be good manners at all to ask a special needs parent the developmental age of their kid immediately upon meeting them.  Oftentimes, a special needs parent will share the cognitive age of their child with his caregivers once they feel comfortable doing so.  But even if they choose not to, usually an approximate age can be determined just by spending a little time with the child.

While it can be hard to do so, especially if the "child" is six feet tall and weighs 200 pounds, this cognitive age is the one you should keep in mind when interacting with a special needs individual.  That developmental age is the age that will essentially determine how that child behaves.

While our sweet Lily Bird is now four years old, developmentally, she is probably two years old. Which means that she spends much of her time acting like a two year old, rather than a four year old.

So remember all those lovely two year old traits?  Acting like they don't understand "come here" and "no".  Placing their hand directly next to the thing you just told them not to touch while giving you the stink eye.  Biting.  Testing the boundaries just to make sure you haven't changed them this time.

And remember all those things you begin teaching your child once he turns two?  Potty training.  Picking up after himself.  Putting on his own socks and shoes.  Coloring with a crayon instead of eating it.

Well, if you're interacting with a special needs ten year old boy (chronologically) and he is really cognitively two years old, odds are very good he's not going to behave like any other typical ten year old.  Nor should you expect him to.  He is just younger on the inside than he is on the outside.  He is essentially a ten year old toddler.

Now that does not mean you need to lower your expectations of what he can accomplish or that he has a free pass to deliberately disobey with no consequences.  And it doesn't mean you tickle his tummy and "baby talk" to him, either.

But it does mean that you should not be surprised if he needs help putting on his shoes, eats some Play-dough or has an accident.  You also need to be aware that if you tell him no, he may come after you with teeth bared.

I honestly believe that most bad behaviors, at least the ones we deal with right now, are usually the result of Lily being so frustrated at not being able to express herself in a way that we understand quickly.  Of course, sometimes the bad behaviors are simply to get our attention, a common two year old trait.

Trying to be proactive and stay a step ahead of negative behaviors requires some diligence and anticipatory thinking.

One thing to try is offering choices, but not ones that require a simple "yes" or "no" answer.  Odds are good if you ask a special needs child to complete a specific task, his answer will be "no".  Instead, try these ideas:

Offer a limited choice.  "Do you want to do the puzzle or do the lacing card?"  Both of these are tasks you would like him to complete but letting him pick which one to do first allows him a small amount of control.

Offer a first...then choice.  "First stack the blocks...then you can listen to music."  This is a simple reminder to the child that he will get to do an activity he really enjoys after first finishing a task that he might not like as much.

Offer a choice within a certain framework.  For example, you want the child to write his name on a dot-to-dot sheet and then complete it.  You might say, "Do you want to do the dots first or write your name first?"  Again, you letting him know exactly what you want him to do but allowing him to choose which order he'd like to do it in.

Take frequent breaks.  It might take longer to finish tasks, but building in lots of down-time releases pent-up energy that could rear it's ugly head and lead to negative behaviors or a meltdown.

Use break times to engage in activities that the child most enjoys.  An active child will appreciate bouncing on a mini trampoline, swinging, or maybe even doing jumping jacks or hopping on one leg at a time.  A child who simply needs a "brain break" might enjoy looking at books, listening to music, squeezing some play-dough, or taking a walk.

And breaks don't have to last a long time.  Figure out a schedule that seems to work best for the child.  Work 10 minutes then break for 5 minutes.  More than likely, you'll be able to gradually increase the work time.

Timers can be a great tool to use for breaks.  A timer allows the child to relax because he knows you haven't forgotten that you promised him a break.  It might even prevent him from constantly asking you if it's break time yet.  You can use a clock face for older kids.  A simple sand timer works well for younger kids.  There are even special colored sand timers you can buy - each color signifies a different amount of time.

Prepare the child for new situations that you know are on the horizon.  If a child is being promoted to a new Sunday School class at church, a few weeks before the change, let them take short visits to the new classroom, meet the teachers, explore the room a bit, check out the new bathroom, wash their hands in the sink, see what different toys are available... that type of thing.

For children who struggle with aggression, it might be a good idea to provide them with an area they can retreat to until they are calm.  Provide them with objects that are acceptable to hit or kick such as pillows, beach balls, bean bags, garbage bags filled with crumpled newspaper, or even a punching bag.  Allowing them to release their frustration in this way might prevent them from taking it out on someone.

Be realistic.  Some activities that a special needs child's chronological age peers participate in are just not going to be appropriate for him.  Church is a good example.  Stay in big church or youth group for the music portion only and then leave with an adult buddy when the sermon begins.  Maybe during sermon time, an older special needs child could help out by folding bulletins or setting up chairs in a Sunday School room.

The most important thing to remember is that even though these children may not communicate well or their cognitive age may not match their chronological age, they understand much more than you might think.  It's crucial that you let them know that you believe in them, that you support them, and that you want to help them achieve their very best.

Believe that you can make a difference in the lives of these special children and you will.


  1. Lana,I'm not trying to be funny. I've been a Christian 23 years I wonder what my developmental ages is ? I'm thinking 10.What do u think?

  2. D - I believe you are referring more to your "spiritual" age and 10 is not giving yourself near enough credit, in my opinion. I'm always blessed by your comments in GG. You are something else, my friend! :)


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