Healing the Special Needs Child

Many foster and adoptive parents have children with special needs who require specialized care and skills. According to Wikipedia, the term special needs “is a term used in clinical diagnostic and functional development to describe individuals who require assistance for disabilities that may be medical, mental, or psychological.”

In the United States, more than 150,000 children with special needs are waiting for permanent homes. Traditionally, children with special needs have been considered harder to place for adoption than other children, but experience has shown that many children with special needs can be placed successfully with families who want them.

This can put more of a strain on families than they realize. Just loving a child really hard is not enough to manage the requirements of a special needs child. It takes special knowledge and a support system from other parents of special needs children and professionals who “get it!”

Being unprepared is one of the reasons foster and adoptive families disrupt. Disruption is a term that refers to the ending of a foster placement prior to the finalization of an adoption. The rate of disruption has traditionally been10-20% nationally. Post-Adoption services and education can decrease this rate dramatically!

Perhaps the most challenging special needs issue, for parents and professionals, is Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). This is defined as a “continuum of permanent birth defects caused by maternal consumption of alcohol during pregnancy. It refers to a group of conditions that can occur in a person whose mother drank alcohol during pregnancy. Problems may include an abnormal appearance, short height, low body weight, small head size, poor coordination, low intelligence, behavior problems, and problems with hearing or seeing.” (Wikipedia)

Fetal alcohol syndrome

In addition to the physical symptoms of FASD, there are several corresponding mental health problems, such as attentional deficits, clinical depression, anxiety, or other mental illness. As you can imagine, many of the problems show up in the child’s school experience. Suspensions or expulsion from school occurs in 90% of children in the united states. For teenagers, this can result in dropping of out of school, experienced by 60% of the subjects (age 12 and older).

Other problems, such as legal issues, can occur for FASD children. Being charged or convicted of a crime is experienced by 60% of the children ages 12 and older. (Wikipedia)

One of the ways to help children with special needs heal is to work on executive functioning skills. Executive Functioning: “are a set of cognitive processes – including attentional control, inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility, as well as reasoning, problem-solving and planning – that are necessary for the cognitive control of behavior: selecting and successfully monitoring behaviors that facilitate the attainment of chosen goals.”

Elevating executive functioning skills will help children with special needs make better choices, control their behavior and manage their thoughts and emotions. The simplest way to elevate them is through play.


It’s been said that play is the “beginning of knowledge.” The play is a child’s natural language and how they interact with the world and learn new skills and the shortest route to helping special needs children.

Babies and young children can benefit from games of peekaboo, pat-a-cake, hiding games, simple songs, and music, copying games, and fingerplays. Example of young child games include Eensy Weensy Spider, Where is Thumbkin, Open, Shut Them. Repetition and allowance for failure is key to helping children’s brain develop normally.

School-age children benefit from reading books, music, and movement, simple imitation games like follow the leader, conversations, manipulation of objects like blocks and Legos. Allow children to set the course of play allowing them to start and stop the rhythm of play.

It would seem that play with special needs children is the same as with any other child and it is…except that the intention and purpose of the play are to build brain skills that need reinforcement. The ability to stay focus and tolerate interactions need to be increased over time. If a child can only sit and play for 5 minutes, we want to increase that time to 6 minutes, then 7, etc. Start where the child is and allow them to increase tolerance and focus.

Take into consideration that each time the nervous system starts and then stops, it learns how to persist past impulses and distractions. Each time it achieves a difficult goal, it discovers the pleasure of success and wants to repeat this experience. This provides an internal locus of control that doesn’t require an adult to always supervise the play.

Play also develops social skills, an area that can be drastically missing in children with special needs. As children get older, teamwork becomes more important and necessary both at home and school. Children become more active and like to engage in dance, sports, playing catch, and various competition games. Competition can become a way to alienate others as special needs children have tantrums/meltdowns when they don’t win. This is due to a need to compensate for low self-esteem feeling like a failure at tasks and games.

Let the play be about the process and not the end result. Be happy for others who when and concentrating on celebrating team efforts will enhance executive functioning and overall relational success.

Is this still exhausting work? Yes! But the effort will be worth it in the long run. Use storytelling and imaginary play to make the connections that are missing in social/emotional development. Role-playing and creative art can also be a powerful tool for parents and professionals. Red Light/Green Light, Simon Says, clapping rhythms, guessing games, I Spy, and Brain Teasers are also useful brain tools.

Teenagers with special needs can benefit from practicing real-time daytimers, calendars, whiteboards, mind mapping and more to develop organizational, goal setting, planning, and monitoring and studying skills.

None of these activities should be done in isolation from caring, patient adults. Attachment and brain researchers operate under the maxim that “brains that fire together, wire together.” Just giving a toy to a child or tell them to do a task will not enhance the prefrontal cortex of the brain, where executive functioning is centered. Optimal development occurs when do people interact. Adults can guide the conversation and play to specifically target the individualized needs of the child. The child’s ability to push passed frustrations and manage moods will need the adult to help them through it.


Finally, children of all ages can benefit from the mental organization power of mindfulness. Executive functioning is more than academic ability. This might be the focus on many of the adults in the child’s life but life smarts are important aspects of book smarts.

According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), “Mindfulness is the awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” Learning to be mindful of one’s thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations calm the nervous system so thinking skills can increase. Teaching children the importance of experiencing their breath, mindful eating, yoga, and how to ground themselves are crucial skills at all ages.

Get more powerful tools for managing special needs and trauma for your organization with Trauma-Informed Training by contacting Ron Huxley now…click here!

Failing School? Sensory Issues Could be the Problem.

Parents are worried about children returning to school and failing!

Guest post by Marga Grey, OT

It’s a horrible thought…

Your little one, suffering at school. Whether they’re struggling to make sense of the lessons, or even being bullied for being “different”.

All you want to do is swoop in and protect them! I know, I’m a mom myself. And even as they get older, that protective feeling doesn’t get any less…

If I take my mom hat off for a minute, and put my Occupational Therapist one on, I can tell you a fact:

Poor Sensory Motor Skills are the culprit for most problems in the classroom.

It’s true.

Things like:

  • Concentration
  • Handwriting
  • Sitting still in their chair
  • Coordination
  • And more

Are all impacted by poor Sensory Motor Skills.

And how a child reacts to these problems is different in every case.

Some go into their shell, become anxious and have bad associations with school, even experiencing physical symptoms like stomach pain and headaches at the thought of going to school.

Others act out and are unfairly labeled “troublemaker” or “lazy” when they actually have no control over their ability to complete the allocated tasks.

One thing is consistent throughout every child I see though:

Improving their Sensory Motor Skills improves their performance in the classroom. Fact.

And as they have to be at school for 12 years (not counting further study after that) it is SO important to give them the best possible foundation for their schooling career!

Even if you feel they are doing “Okay” and there’s nothing really wrong… helping your child’s Sensory Motor Skill development will only give your child even more of an advantage.

Learn how to give your child the skill to focus and control their impulses before school starts! Click here for more info.

Sensory Integration: Shaping Perceptions of the World A newly emerging therapy for alcohol- and drug-exposed children

By Ira Chasnoff, MD

One of the relatively new common themes emerging in clinical care and research with children exposed to alcohol and drugs during pregnancy is related to deficits in sensory integration. Jean Ayres, an occupational therapist, first introduced the concept of sensory integration – the process by which the brain receives, organizes and interprets information from the environment. The information is received by sensory receptors, such as the eyes, nose, ears, fingers, mouth and skin. Sensations such as movement, body awareness, touch, sight, sound and the pull of gravity make up the overall sensory experience.

Source: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/aristotles-child/201405/sensory-integration-shaping-perceptions-the-world

The information that is received from the environment is then sent to the corresponding regions of the brain where it is interpreted and organized. Proper sensory integration helps us to maintain attention and build positive relationships with others and shapes our perception of the world. In children, sensory integration provides a crucial foundation for more complex learning and behavior. All of these things contribute to positive self-esteem as well as the ability to learn and concentrate.

For most children, sensory integration develops in the course of ordinary childhood activities. However, prenatal alcohol or drug exposure or lack of stimulation in the early years of development can damage the parts of the brain responsible for sensory integration. An infant who is neglected or has limited opportunities for human interaction, movement, play and exploration is likely to develop sensory integration problems. Sensory integration dysfunction can result when babies are unable to explore their surroundings, are left alone in their cribs for long periods of time, and do not receive the nurturing touch of a caretaker. Likewise, these problems can occur in children who have been hospitalized early or for long periods of time, or in those who have suffered from some sort of trauma and disruption in their developmental process. These life factors are not uncommon in children born into a home in which substance abuse and violence are integral components of the environment.

Children who are experiencing sensory integration difficulties are not intentionally misbehaving. They are simply trying to gain the input that their body needs or avoid extra stimulation in order to function properly. Children with sensory processing problems often feel uncomfortable in their own skin, agitated or out of sorts. That is why it is not uncommon for the children to receive a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as they reach school age. These children are often intelligent but struggle to control their body and their need for sensory inputs. It is important to remember that the sensory needs of these children are just that – needs. Trying to diminish the needs for these behaviors will not be effective, but finding adaptable ways to satisfy the sensory needs of the child is helpful.

It is important that assessment of sensory integration capabilities be evaluated in children with prenatal alcohol or drug exposure. Some signs that a child may be experiencing difficulty with sensory integration include:

• Clumsy behaviors

• Over sensitivity to sounds, sights, smell, touch or movement

• Under reactivity to sounds, sights, smell, touch or movement

• Distractibility

• Hard to calm down

• Difficulty during transitions and adapting to changes in routine

• Picky when eating – particularly sensitive to the texture or feel of foods

• Resistant to touching things – e.g., resists going barefoot in the grass, playing in sand

• Defensive to light touch

• Agitation when spinning or roughhousing

• Excessive seeking out of spinning or swinging movements

• Tendency to exhibit rocking or swaying body movements

• Increased excitation during play to the point that he cannot calm down

• Distractibility when eating in a noisy environment

• Easily tired

• Weakness in various muscles

• Fear or intolerance of sounds – e.g., holds hands over ears to protect himself from sounds

• Awareness of noises that others do not notice

• Difficulties with teeth brushing, hair washing and/or bathing

• Sensitivities to clothing textures and/or needs tags cut out of clothing

• Overly fearful or avoidant of situations or people

• Impulsivity or exhibiting “daredevil” behaviors

• Difficulty falling or staying asleep.

Of course, many of these difficulties fall into the range of normal behavior, but it is when they cluster or are more frequent and more disruptive than what would be normally expected that they may indicate significant problems.

An occupational therapist, trained in sensory integration assessment and treatment, can evaluate a child and provide these services. Children with prenatal alcohol or drug exposure often suffer early neglect and trauma; sensory integration is a very helpful approach from both perspectives. It often is quite amazing to see the improvement in children’s daily behavior and functioning when they receive this specialized form of treatment.