Empowering Children With Special Needs

As the parent of two children who grew up with learning disabilities, motor skill delays, processing challenges, health issues and more, I know first hand how difficult it is two empower our children. On many occasions, I had the urge to give in to all of their demands and requests, perform all tasks for them and climb metaphorical mountains rather than witness tears in my children’s eyes, frustration and meltdowns. After all, every parent wants their child to be happy and carefree.

Unfortunately, the reality is that every small child will inevitably become an adult. As parents, we need to step back and remind ourselves that the ultimate goal is to assist children as they travel the road to independence. Depending on a child’s ability level, what is deemed as independent will differ. However, our goal should be to strive for assisting children towards the most independent lifestyle feasibly possible.

Provide safe challenges. A safe challenge is defined as a skill level slightly ahead of where they presently are. These types of challenges are realistic and tasks the child will most likely achieve successfully. If a task is slightly above their present skill – set and the child masters the skill, they will feel a sense of empowerment. As their positive self efficacy rises, the child will feel confident regarding moving to the next level and the next.

Expectations that are presented in baby steps will have the best possibility of resulting in success. If the task is extremely advanced and far removed from the child’s skill level it will backfire. The child will lose confidence. Hence they will refuse to cooperate out of fear of failure. Teaching new skills must be done in baby steps, layering a new skill as an old one is learned.

Parents expectations will most likely be met with tears, meltdowns and even a child that goes on strike and refuses to cooperate. At this point, a parent’s inclination is to merely do the tasks for the child rather than see them cry or express frustration. It pains every parent to see their child frustrated. We must remember the ultimate goal. To jettison children to adulthood equipped with as many skills as feasibly possible.

Frustration is a part of life and it is quite the gift to teach children coping and living skills while they are young and have nurturing parents to cheer them on. If parents have no expectations for their special needs children, the kids will assume parents do not have confidence in their skills. After all, why else would a parent not have expectations for their children? We cannot wrap our children in bubble wrap and expect them to function in the adult world.

I recall a child approximately ten years of age visiting my home. He asked for milk. I gave him a cup and asked him to pour his milk. He had motor skill challenges. The boy replied that he was not allowed to pour his own milk; his mother poured it for him. I asked why? The boy stated that it was because he spilled it. I explained that in our home you pour your own milk at ten years old.

The child was hesitant. I explained that spills could be wiped up. He poured the milk, spilled some and I modeled how easy the spill could be cleaned with no permanent damage done. I provided a safe environment for the boy to have an accident with no fear of reprisal. The look of pride on his face when he accomplished the task of independently pouring the milk was priceless.

Remember when you learned how to ride a two-wheel bike? I am sure that you fell many times while learning to balance. Eventually, you experienced success and mastered riding a bicycle. Scrapes and bumps were inevitable along the way. Imagine if no one ever took off the training wheels to protect you from the scrapes and bumps, you never would have learned how to ride that bike. This same analogy is appropriate for any new task your child learns. They may get frustrated. However, if we never allow them to experience frustration, new skills will never be learned.

Setting expectations and teaching skills to special needs kids is more challenging for parents with special needs kids. The effort exuded by both the parent and child to learn new skills is threefold in comparison to a neurotypical child. I have held back tears in front of my kids to many times to count throughout the years so I could model resilience for them. I shed many tears privately when they were not present. It is quite a balancing act but if we do not believe in their ability to develop new skills, how can the children believe in themselves?

It is extremely difficult to avoid the urge to rescue special needs kids. No parent wants to witness their child struggling. However, children need to not only experience success but experience the roadblocks that are inevitable along the way. When children learn to fall on their face and experience the success of getting back up on their feet, they become empowered with a can do mindset. No matter the child’s eventual level of cognitive, emotional and physical growth we need to remember their future. Unless parents will be living with them in their first apartment, going to work with their grown child all day, living in a college dorm with them or sheltered housing dependent on their final level of functioning then empowering our children is non negotiable.

1) Explain your child’s diagnosis to them to the best of your abilities and their level of understanding. This assists them in taking ownership of their special challenges and ultimately being involved in developing strategies as they grow older.
2) Use your child’s diagnosis as a guideline for how to approach and interact with them. Do not use their diagnosis to handicap them.

3) Have expectations for your child to instill responsibility. No matter what a child’s developmental level, they all have some noticeable skills. Have your child set the table for dinner. If motor skills cause them to drop and break plates then use plastic plates instead. Accommodate…..Accomodate…….Accomodate.

4) Do not make excuses for kids when the kids are actually capable of the behavior or task. The task may be difficult for them, it may be quicker and easier to do it ourselves and we do not want to see them struggle. If our expectations are below their skill level then they will perform below their skill level.

5) When teaching a child a new skill whether it is making their bed, setting a table and more, be careful regarding criticizing a task not done to your level of specifications. Praise them and encourage their effort without correcting them. Praise will encourage them to try again. Criticism will make the child wary of their capabilities and productiveness. Hence they will back away from learning anything new.
6) When reaching developmental plateaus with special needs kids, do not assume they have developed to their full potential. With the right encouragement and parental sticktoitness, kids will develop far beyond parents and professionals expectations. They will do it on their own time frame and not ours but they will exceed all expectations with the right support.

7) Do not speak and do things for your child that they could do themselves, nor allow other family members to do so. It may save messes, ease time constraints for completing tasks and lower the frustration level in the house. In the end it will be resultant in an enabled child for sure. After all, if you could have others speak for you, clean up for you and do tasks for you would you challenge yourself to grow developmentally. Most likely not. After all, it is a good life when you have others doing for you what you should be doing for your self.
In closing, reach for the stars. Never underestimate how far your child will develop. No one has a crystal ball that predicts your child’s future. With a parents support, your children will astound you regarding the skills they will develop that no one thought they would. Your kids believe in you. Can you believe in them?

I am a published author and focus on books pertaining to autism and Aspergers Syndrome. I have had special needs articles published in several magazines. I have been interviewed several times in print, on pod casts, and internet T.V. regarding the autism spectrum. I have presented autism workshops to staff, management teams, and parent groups. I offer tips on curriculum development and behavior modification within the classroom and through in-services. I am certified by the Department of Early Childhood Education as a lead preschool teacher, an infant and toddler teacher, and site coordinator qualified to manage school age programs. I have recently ventured into public speaking engagements to educate both parents and educators on autism and Aspergers Syndrome
I want my experiences and challenges to be used productively as a learning tool for other parents and for educators as well. When my son was diagnosed with Asperger’s a decade ago it was a foreign word among many parents and professionals alike. I fought for help never giving up. Through my books I wish to help parents feel like they do not walk in the dark, that they are not alone, empower them and that there is light at the end of the tunnel. I also want to educate society at large on the topic of the autism spectrum. I believe all parties involved need to work as a collaborative team in order to insure a special needs child’s success.If you like my articles, aside from being the parent of an adult with Aspergers Syndrome/ A.D.D and an educational professional, I am also a published author of many special needs and autism related books written to inspire and support parents, families, educators and society at large as well. Please stop by and check out my books on Amazon.com at Mari Nosal : Please stop by my site at Amazon Books and check out my published books on autism aspergers special needs and more http://tinyurl.com/kdspqy9


Mari Nosal M.Ed.


One thought on “Empowering Children With Special Needs”

  1. This is a great article, thank you! I absolutely agree with providing safe challenges for kids with special needs with the ultimate goal of instilling independence and confidence, although I hope that parents would be able to model resilience by making mistakes, showing a range of feelings (including tears), and then dusting off the dirt and moving forward respectfully. Many times labels applied to different-abilities can be a barrier for kids, parents and even teachers/care providers who will limit responsibilities given to the child because of the diagnosis. Many times the child will internalize the label which in turn may increase the risk of the child underestimating their own intellectual/emotional/physical capabilities. Disclosing and talking about diagnosis(es) with the child, family members, friends and the broader community is very personal choice and one to be weighed with careful consideration. Everyone is different in this world and we all have varying levels of capabilities. I think it’s important to focus on those positive qualities, allowing our kids to explore and discover their unique abilities in both a supportive and challenging environment which in turn allows a child’s sense of self-worth and confidence to grow.


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