Children with special needs aren’t the only ones who deal with a society whose expectations do not align with reality. Parents and caregivers of special needs kids do as well.
The fact is that parental skills are often taught in a supposed “one-size-fits-all” paradigm. How can parents figure out how to guide their children with special needs when so much of what they’re taught or shown either doesn’t work or is just plain ridiculous in the context of neurodivergence?
How can parents help kids with special needs thrive in a world that often refuses to see, understand, and value them? How will children know how to see themselves differently than others and love themselves, not in spite of the difference but because of it?
In this article, I propose five tips on how to help kids with special needs thrive, not just survive.
How to Help Kids with Special Needs Thrive
I hope that, through implementing these strategies, parents can help their children to cherish the diversity and beauty they bring to the world. In doing so, someday, the world will cherish them, too.
1. Change Your Mind
Change your mind about what it means to be a great parent. Techniques and mentalities must be altered to help your child thrive. Understanding and building a relationship with your child is key and is more important than making sure you raise them the same way you were taught or how you raise neurotypical children.
Educate yourself. Strive to understand your child. Listen to them. Let them lead.
Child-led parenting is an effective tool across the board for neurotypical children, neurodiverse children, and kids with a trauma background. For the neurodivergent child, letting them lead by showing you in their own way promotes gentleness and understanding in powerful ways.
Neurodivergent children bring a unique view of the world around them. Their ability to help others see that same view has the potential to be life-changing. If we parent them by trying to fit them into the socially acceptable mold, they will break it and possibly themselves in the process.
Changing your mind about how to parent and how a child “should” interact with others is truly the first step to helping your child with special needs to thrive.
2. Curate Their Options
The idea of curating your child’s options mirrors the fact that their options must fit their needs because their needs don’t fit the typical list of options available to all.
In other words, parents of children with special needs must find a way to marry out-of-the-box solutions with the usual list of ways to meet any child’s needs and form a personalized approach to their life.
A neurodivergent child’s needs are not over the top, but they may seem that way because of the social constructs that have been widely available and identified as the way to meet them. In reality, meeting a neurodivergent child’s needs is a matter of acknowledging the lack of depth the world sees and digging deeper to help them learn and evolve.
For example, love, food, sleep, education, clothing, and exercise are all things every child needs. A neurodiverse child also needs all these things, but they may also need a specialist’s care, therapy, a certain diet, sleep aids such as a CPAP machine, exercises that are modified in some way, and an individualized approach to learning.
Providing access to as many options as possible to meet their needs will give them tools that will help them thrive, even in the face of challenges.
3. Celebrate Milestones and Holidays Differently
Being left out of celebrations or not feeling celebrated by family and friends can take a huge toll on the mental health of our children with special needs. It is important to dive into their world, encourage them to reach their goals, and help them feel more confident and comfortable when celebrating.
In much the same way as we can curate our child’s options, we can also celebrate their milestones, even if they are not the typical milestones celebrated in our society or culture.
One example could be acknowledging and celebrating our child with sensory processing disorder who has just utilized their coping skills in a setting that usually caused them to meltdown. This is just as important as celebrating an “A” on a paper or a medal won on the track team.
Celebrating our neurodivergent child’s wins with the same enthusiasm and grandeur as other children’s is so important. It shows them that their success is seen, it makes a difference, and they are valued. It also raises their self-esteem and helps them see that loving and celebrating themselves even if others don’t is okay and good.
It also shows them that we are there for them and always will be. Celebrating them, even in the little things, helps them see that we value them and exemplifies the power of valuing themselves.
Holidays with special needs kids don’t have to mean missed opportunities for celebrations. Every holiday or family celebration can include all children.
Modifications can help make sure that every child is included and celebrated. Some tweaks can include:
- Spending less time at an event to avoid overstimulation
- Switching out certain activities for others that everyone can enjoy them
- Taking extra time to prepare the child for the experience
- Providing weighted vests, noise altering headphones, or designated alone space when needed
- Setting boundaries with friends and family members about how to handle potential meltdowns or socially “unacceptable” behaviors
All of these and more could potentially allow our children with special needs to be included and to enjoy themselves at family functions and holidays. Autism Parenting Magazine published an article titled Let’s Party: Celebrating without the Stress that I found super encouraging and helpful when walking through a trigger-filled party or celebration
4. Connect the Dots
This one has the potential to change lives big time! Children with special needs often have special abilities, too. Sometimes, these abilities are played down because of social constructs or overlooked because of other pressing or overwhelming struggles.
Helping our children with special needs and abilities to have a well rounded existence requires taking in the challenges and the gifts and showing them how they work together. We can empower our children when we help them to see how they fit into the world.
Providing them with outlets for their passions and solutions for their struggles is what good parenting actually entails. Prepare them for the future by building on the present. Allowing them to reach their goals, celebrating their triumphs, and revealing the ways their struggles teach them about life connects them to the world.
No matter the size of their world, their importance in it—and to it—impacts their life. Thriving is living life as a whole person. Seeing how their gifts, talents, and how they take on challenges all work together to serve them and others helps them feel excited, confident, and connected.
5. Challenge the System
Advocating for our children is extremely important. It can be intimidating and frustrating as well. The world we live in does not always value, understand, or cater to our kids with special needs. When we advocate for them, we challenge the system.
Challenging the system starts at home with the tips given above. It challenges the way our kids see themselves. Then, that power is taken with them into the world.
Advocating for our kids changes the options available to them. It also highlights our love and care for them. Teaching them to advocate for themselves, knowing we have their backs, is the first step in changing the things that can make our society such a hostile place.
Change has happened for the better in our world and how others relate to the neurodivergent. We have to keep challenging the systems that hold oppression and insist on misrepresentations and misunderstanding our kids. Little by little, the world we leave for them is evolving for the better.
Kids with special needs’ ability to thrive depends upon their ability to adapt to a world that resists adapting to them. In doing so, they begin to change the world around them, and eventually, that world will not need to be adapted to because it will be open for them.
In reality, I believe all children would thrive if we approached their needs the way we approach them for the neurodivergent.
Until then, children with special needs can thrive by being given the proper tools to explore their world in an empowering, loving, and supportive environment at home. They will take that with them as they move through the world, helping to make it a better place.
Featured photo credit: Nathan Anderson via unsplash.com