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.

play1

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.

calm

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!

Living with Siblings With Disabilities in Special Needs Families

Family And Disability – Special Needs Families

“Don’t Forget about Me!”

I have often mentioned the social-emotional journey toward the acceptance of a learning disability (LD) and shared information and resources that were intended to help adults work though the complex emotions that go hand in hand with having a child who struggles with learning. The feedback I received (thank you to all who wrote to share your first-hand experiences and to offer ideas for future discussion) reminded me how important it is to also recognize the experience of other family members, particularly siblings, whose lives are affected, often in dramatic ways, by living with an individual with LD.

Seeing the Forest Through the Trees

Raising children is a wonderful journey that has rewards and challenges every step along the way. Parenting children with special needs (whether they have health issues, problems with learning and behavior, and even exceptional abilities) is especially labor intensive. The attention and energy expended to meet these special needs and keep a healthy balance between home and school can be all-consuming and at times exhausting. As a consequence of this day-in and day-out juggling act, the feelings and needs of non-disabled siblings might be unintentionally overlooked.

Video: A Family of Brothers

Four brothers, two with learning disabilities, talk about how they support each other. Watch now >

Made possible by a grant from the Oak Foundation.

Being on “LD alert” 24/7 can be very tiring, and parental stress and fatigue alone takes a toll on siblings who continually have to figure out how they fit into the flow of family activity and emotions and how their needs for attention, approval and assistance can be met. With parents needing to devote additional time and resources to helping one child, the overall family dynamic is easily thrown off balance.

Siblings Have Feelings, Too

What could siblings be thinking and feeling as they watch their brother or sister struggle with learning? If they could find the right words, they might touch upon the very same emotions that were described by a psychologist in the 1940s who proposed a model of understanding human behavior. This ‘hierarchy of needs’ can readily be used to understand some of the emotions that need to be appreciated, understood and addressed by parents and other adults in order to help siblings cope with feelings of anger, jealousy, worry, guilt, and embarrassment that comprise their personal “baggage” as siblings and family members.

Physiology (having to do with comfort and the physical body)

  • “How come he gets more hugs than I do? And for things that are expected of everyone, like finishing homework!”

Safety (dealing with the need to be protected from harm)

  • “Why can’t he make his own sandwich? He just needs to be careful with the bread knife.
  • "What’s the big deal about him riding his bike to school?”

Belongingness and love (feeling attachment to others)

  • “It seems like she’s always the first one to get attention.”
  • “I’m always doing things for her; when was the last time she did something for me?”

Esteem (having your thoughts and actions valued by others)

  • “If you ask me, I’d tell you that you need to back off a little; you’re doing things for him that he should be doing for himself.”
  • “What about my report card? Pretty good, huh?”

Knowledge and understanding (seeking information)

  • “When will her LD go away?”
  • “Is she ever going to be able to do her work on her own?”

Aesthetic (deriving pleasure and triggering emotion)

  • “He’s got a great laugh, even though his sense of humor is weird.”
  • “I wish I knew how to really help him when he’s feeling down on himself.”

Self-actualization (having “peak experiences” that provide self-fulfillment)

  • “I know we’re very different, but we’ll always be there to support each other.”
  • “They said he couldn’t learn how to play guitar, and I taught him!”

Transcendence (connecting to something beyond yourself to help others)

  • “Everyone deserves to be appreciated for who they are and not just what they can do.”
  • “I know how important it is to spend time with him and his friends; they really look up to me and know that I will treat them with respect (even though they can be annoying and immature at times).”

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