Special needs parenting has an opportunity to focus on ability, not disability.
I’ve been called a protective mom by people who know me and my son. Others, who don’t, have remarked that I snowplow. I’ve actually always considered myself more of a free-range parent who encourages independence, but it’s different when your child doesn’t speak.
You see, I was my son’s voice for the first several years of his life. He’s autistic and didn’t talk until he turned five. People questioned why I spoke for him at all since I’ve heard over and over again from strangers that “he looks normal.”
Thankfully, my son found his voice. I had snowplowed because I was terrified of him getting lost and not being able to talk or use sign language. But once he started talking and could express himself, I began to let go. Yes, it took some practice for me to stop clearing paths for him to succeed, but we were well on our way.
It can be hard to take a step back.
At age 9, he walked to the library in the next town by himself. Many parents expressed shock that I didn’t accompany him. Shortly after, we stopped hiring babysitters for him. When family and neighbors heard that, I got an earful, too.
“I hate the concept of helicopter parenting,” says Sarah, a mom of an autistic child who didn’t want to use her last name, “because it gives strangers the smug feeling that they know better how to parent our kids after seeing them for five minutes on a playground than the parents do after years of trial and error. Sure, some people may helicopter due to their own insecurities, but for kids with special needs, especially non-obvious special needs, what may seem like over-protectiveness might be a necessity driven by experience.”
Sarah often sits on the sidelines when her son plays soccer and gives him cues of what to do, “because he’d get overwhelmed in the chaos of the game and couldn’t sort it out for himself,” she says.
I’ve met parents who won’t let their special needs children play alone in their own backyard. One mom told me she won’t let her son go to the park by himself, even though it’s a block from the house. Another reported that kids with special needs are targets for kidnapping.
I get it. I understand that we worry about our kids. But I believe hovering over our children—whether they have special needs or not—is a disservice.
We need to give kids more credit.
“Traditionally, children with cognitive disabilities were viewed as kids who couldn’t do things for themselves,” says Leigh Kolodny-Kraft, licensed therapist, founder, and executive director of The Kraft Group, which specializes in addiction and trauma therapy and working with people with special needs.
She’s also a mom of three. Her youngest son has ADHD and her middle son is autistic.
“Today, we know our kids are capable—depending on the disability—of doing more than we give them credit for,” she says. “The goal of raising an independent child with special needs is for them to be independent, not perfect. We have to allow our children to try even if it means failing.”
Kolodny-Kraft taught her children how to do their own laundry and basic cooking skills. Her youngest was making eggs at age 10. She also taught her middle son how to sew, and now he operates a sewing machine better than she can.
All of these are important skills, and she really tries to let her kids lead the way as much as possible.
“I could go in and stop my children from making mistakes, but then they won’t learn how to solve problems,” she says. “They know I’m here for them, but they also know they need to learn how to do things on their own. And when you do everything for your children—whether they have special needs or are neurotypical—they won’t be able to handle adversity when it hits them.”
She says one mistake people often make it that they focus on disability rather than ability.
“We need to teach them how to do things,” she says. “Show them once, twice, or even three times and then let them try it on their own. Often they’ll surprise you.”
Where there's a will there's a way.
I found this out myself with my son who is almost 19 now and doesn’t drive. I’m his chauffeur, but recently, I wouldn’t take him to meet his friends at the mall and he had a meltdown. It didn’t last long, though. Soon, he looked up the bus schedule online and figured out that he had to take two buses to meet his friends. Then he was able to con a ride home from a friend's mom.
“We shortchange our kids when we see only their disability,” Kolodny-Kraft says. “We have to look at our children and know they have some limits due to their disability. However, those disabilities shouldn’t hold them back, even for children who can’t talk. There are electronic devices for children who don’t talk that help them communicate.”
Kolodny-Kraft understands that some children with severe disabilities will need around-the-clock care, but there are still options.
“If a child’s wheelchair-bound, they can still have alone time without a parent watching them at every turn,” she says. “It’s about knowing your child, his disability, and separating our anxieties from what our children are doing.”
She adds that kids have different abilities and strengths. And with time, they will make progress along the way. Plus, the benefits of free play are good for all kids.
“I don’t walk my middle son into his sewing class anymore,” she says. “He goes up by himself and knows I’ll be outside waiting for him to drive him home when class is over.”
Let's all get a little bit stronger.
Now it’s true that a lot of children with special needs are bullied. This can be tough for parents to watch, but it shouldn’t stop kids from developing independence. Kolodny-Kraft says it’s why it’s important to talk to kids about handling different situations.
“We don’t want to scare them,” she says. “We just need to teach them how to handle different situations and how not to be taken advantage of.”
And for any parent, sometimes it’s about a little bit of acceptance.
“Our children will get hurt,” Kolodny-Kraft says. “They’ll learn from their mistakes. And they’ll feel a sense of pride when they complete a task.”
This should apply to all children. Look at what they can do, not at what they can’t.