Welcome to Day 16 of the 31 Days of Random Reflections on Raising and Homeschooling a Child with Special Needs. You can find the main page for this series here.
Parents of children with special needs sometimes struggle with honoring who their child is while teaching him the skills required to live an independent life.
This begs the question: Is teaching my child with special needs to do things “typically-developing” kids do a disservice to my child?
I first started thinking about this when I struggled with what to do with my son’s sensory aversions. He has a strong aversion to the texture of playdough. Just the sight of it makes him gag and spit up.
Disappointed (since this is something most children play with), I tried to slowly desensitize him to it, only to find myself further discouraged. I then asked: How necessary it is for him to play with playdough at all?
I thought long-term about what textures resemble playdough and, other than baker’s dough, I couldn’t see a reason to keep exposing him to it. His strong physical reaction was upsetting to both of us, so I put a stop to it in the hopes of trying again in the future.
I often wonder:
- Should I mold my son?
- How far should I go to challenge him?
- Or, should I accept him as he is?
What the research shows about learning
Brain research, as described by Jolles and Crone (2012), shows that the “human brain is highly plastic and adapts quickly to new experiences.” Their review of both “healthy children” and those with “cognitive or attentional impairments” explains that children can improve their skills as a result of explicit training.
In other words, if children are exposed to new ideas, they learn.
We know through educational leader David Elkind that the purpose of child’s play is to “create new learning experiences” to enable children “to acquire social, emotional, and intellectual skills they could not acquire in any other way.”
A child can practice fine and gross motor skills through non-threatening and fun play experiences, but if the child is gagging, it this fun for anyone? And, how much learning is really happening? This has been my dilemma.
Why I’m conflicted
Corrective therapies have never felt natural to me. I understand their purpose and I value the work therapists do immensely. They have helped us in so many ways throughout the years. My conflict is with the suggestion that my son’s habits aren’t good enough for the rest of the world — we must correct and change them so that he conforms.
There are so many things I love about my son that are a byproduct of his diagnosis:
- flapping hands and arms in excitement
- adorable high-pitched voice
- how he communicates through the soul that spills from his eyes and hands
- contagious laugh
- how he flaps his toys and stares at them in amazement
- pouty mouth when he gets sad
- the innocent sense of humor (that most kids his age have surpassed)
- his obsession with doors (it drives me batty some days, but it makes him so happy)
Should I correct each of these behaviors because they aren’t typical?
Who are we pleasing when we remediate?
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t give our children every possible chance to thrive. But, I don’t want my son to thrive for others. I don’t want him to thrive for society — so that he’ll be accepted. I want him to thrive for himself and that means accepting him where he is right now. Not turning him into a “normal” child or into a person he is not. When we attempt to do that, we become stressed and it also upsets him.
What I think
While I’ll always flip-flop on this discussion, I do know that exposure to new learning experiences is important to a child’s development. A child with special needs may not naturally choose to explore certain tasks as easily as other children might. They need to be explicitly led by adults.
Even if we think our child won’t be able to do it, in the end, we don’t decide what he can and cannot do, and what he will and will not do. We need to approach activities differently, but our children still have the right to learn and to be exposed to new tasks in order to build new skills.
Finding other methods
I have learned to find other methods of building on the same skills as long as I’m clear on the goals.
For example, since my son has a strong physiological reaction to playdough, I researched the benefits of playing with playdough. I learned about how it strengthens small fingers, wrists, and hands and improves eye-hand coordination. I learned how children build their imagination and work on communication skills.
I then asked myself how else I can work on strengthening my son’s hands and improve his eye-hand coordination. How else can I help him build his imagination and work on communication skills? There is no one answer to working on these skills. Playdough does not have to be the only solution just because everyone else uses it.
However, if my goal is to build sensory tolerance of certain textures, I then introduce playdough often but in short amounts of time.
There are many ways to read or write or draw or paint. Therein lies the beauty of homeschooling. It allows you to hone into the right way for your child — something schools don’t have the luxury to do.
Questions to ask yourself when deciding between remediating and allowing your child to be:
- What feels natural?
- What’s the most non-threatening way to ago about remediating this? Is it by going at a slower pace? Over an extended amount of time? In a natural setting?
I am of the mindset that there needs to be a balance between remediation and honing a child’s differences. I acknowledge the fine line between allowing a child be who he is (and having others accept) and teaching him so that he becomes more independent (but not because he’ll “fit in”). I choose to remediate only when my son’s quality of life is drastically compromised.
In essence, here’s what I do: I follow my son’s lead.
Most days we’re dancing on a tightrope that sits neatly between remediating and accepting him right where he is. We move forward, then we pull back to where he’s most comfortable. We move forward again, then pull back again to find that “just right” spot.
Training the developing brain: a neurocognitive perspective by Dietsje D. Jolles, Eveline A. Crone
The power of play: learning what comes naturally by David Elkind