Friday, April 19, 2013

Six Ways To Deal With Special Needs

At work, I spend a lot of time facilitating workshops for people to brainstorm ideas about how to solve  problems.  What I find is that for lots of people, it is tough to come up with ideas.  People might be worried about what others in the room will think of their ideas, they may feel they don't know enough about the subject matter to contribute in a meaningful way or they may not believe the problem can be solved.

One technique I sometimes use in workshops to stimulate ideas is something called negative brainstorming.  That's basically turning a question around and rather than thinking positively on how to solve a problem, it is sometimes easier to generate ideas if you think of how not to solve a problem.  It works like a charm if you ask people what not to do and reverse the negative statements into postiive ones, then you have ideas galore.

I've yet to see this technique fail to generate ideas.

My daughter was diagnosed with autism a little over 5 years ago. From time to time I get questions about my daughter and her situation, what autism looks like on her or questions about autism in general.  For the past few months people have been quietly messaging me asking me how to deal with a special needs situation that they are facing.

I also too often get unsolicited advice on how to parent her, sometimes from other parents, sometimes from parents who have no experience with autism and sometimes even from people who have no kids.  The advice of the childless, by the way,  is always the most sound and logical, since it is given in a perfect world, where one doesn't have to worry about an actual child interfering with the perfect scenario.  As many have said before, we'd all be great parents if we didn't have any kids.  Have a kid and then give me a call, okay?  I don't give people tips on flying the space shuttle, guess why?

I digress, apologies.

Every once in a while though someone actually asks me for advice on how to deal with a situation with a special needs child that is not their own.   I like it when someone asks me this, it means that first and foremost, they are actually thinking about how to approach special needs and that is fantastic.

Still, although I am a special needs parent, I don't have all the answers and sometimes when people ask me for advice I am not sure exactly how to advise them beyond platitudes like be inclusive, be sensitive, etc.

So, I am turning my facilitation technique onto myself and doing a reverse brainstorm to come up with tips for people not acquainted with special needs to deal with special needs.  These tips are based on situations I have experienced as the mother of a child on the autistic spectrum and I guarantee you, each one of these tips are things that have happened to me numerous times IRL and have made me want to cut a bitch or at least slap her (or him) silly.

Buckle up.


Staring is rude.  Staring at a special needs kid is rude too.  There's nothing worse than being somewhere with 20 sets of eyes digging into your back while you are trying, sometimes desperately, to handle a situation while at the same time attempting to hold onto some semblance of sanity.

Even if the child is behaving in a way that you find strange, if the child is causing a scene, if the child is melting down, don't stare.  That child may be experiencing a situation you are not familiar with (overstimulation, confusion, fear, anxiety or something else entirely) and a parent on the other end of that trying to handle the situation without resorting to joining her kid on the floor.

What you can do instead is try to catch the parent's eye and give him or her an understanding nod or glance or smile.  Believe me, whatever you are seeing, the parent is mortified and wondering how they can get out of the situation with a little dignity.  You can never feel more alone than in a crowded shopping mall when your kid is having a meltdown or not listening.  That little nod from a stranger can make the world seem like an infinitely better place, it can keep you on this side of the sanity line.

It can make your day.

Pointing and Making an Example

Actually pointing is worse than staring but a lot of people refrain from pointing because it is considered rude in any situation, but believe me it happens.  Like the time my daughter melted down at the swimming pool and a mother pointed at her and told her little boy, see, that's how bad kids behave.  

What you can do in that situation is not to do this, stop it now.  You know nothing about what you're seeing, show some class and some dignity and show your kid those limits you are talking about.

Careless Whisper

I can't tell you how many times I have been at a gathering and my daughter has done something which begins a conversation between people trying to figure out what is going on.  A few years back my daughter who was near meltdown stage at a birthday party threw something on the floor, and after I managed to calm her down and get rid of that sinking feeling of wanting to climb in a hole somewhere, I was treated to two people sitting close by talking about what must be wrong with my daughter.  My child may be autistic, but I assure you, I am not deaf.


Don't make comments, unless of course you want me to punch you in the mouth.  Seriously, you have no idea what is happening.  You are seeing a snapshot of a situation but have no earthly clue what the photo album looks like.  This has happened to me so many times, I've lost count.  Do people really think they are helping when your kid is having a meltdown at an interactive fountain and they chuckle and ask isn't she too old to behave like that?  

Well, stupid lady, she might be, but what I know for sure is that you are certainly way too old to ask such stupid questions.  And PS, there is such a thing as a stupid question.  Next time you are looking for proof of one, remember this.

Assumption, assumption what's your function?

The saying is true, when you assume, you make an ass out of you and me.

Don't think you can understand a situation when you see a kid doing something.  You have no idea what is going on.  Not every autistic kid (or special needs kid for that matter) looks like someone with special needs.  Don't jump to the conclusion that a child is simply badly behaved or badly parented just because the child is not rocking back and forth with their head down muttering to themselves.  Again, what you see is a snapshot.

I can think of at least 5 times where I have been treated to a lecture series by some well meaning person who has observed my daughter in action and then had to sit and listen to this person while they held court to talk about how kids today aren't raised with any limits.  Or the time at a party we attended a few years ago, when Maya became obsessed with the host's kitten and continually chased it around.  She wasn't doing anything bad to the kitten, just chasing it through the house and playing with it and laughing her head off.  I spent the entire party saying "Maya, leave the cat alone, Maya, stop chasing the cat."  Finally, the cat owner got annoyed with Maya, yelled at me to control my kid and she and her posse walked out onto the balcony with the cat and gave me the stinkeye the rest of the day.  Um, did you hear me tell my kid to stop chasing the cat six billion times?  No one at that party even knew my name, I was the stop-chasing-the-cat-lady.

Suffice it to say, we've never been invited to another one of their parties, oh well.

Asking Questions

Yes, please do ask questions.  Maybe though not when my child is in mid-meltdown mode.  Choose your moment well, however,  and I am happy to answer any questions about autism or how you and your child might interact with my daughter in a meaningful way.  Most other parents of special needs kids that I know feel the same.

For one, like any parent, we like to talk to about our kids as much as anyone else, but more importantly, as tough a job as parenting any child is, parenting a special needs child can sometimes be a particularly lonely place.  Daily routines are fraught with challenges, special needs children need constant supervision and we are always on the lookout to avoid situations which might trigger our child to become frightened, overstimulated or unruly.

Model inclusion

Ok, I was going to try to avoid platitudes and generalizations, but one of the best things you can do, particularly if you have children of your own is to model yourself as someone who is inclusive to those with special needs and show them that people with special needs are not to be feared or ignored or ridiculed.  In fact, in a lot of situations they can find a meaningful way to socialize with a special needs child, perhaps not in the same exact way that they socialize with their other peers, but in a lot of circumstances, with a little creativity, it is possible to find meaningful ways to interact and include a special needs child.

If your child has regular contact with special needs children try encouraging your children to include a child with special needs in some social activities, even if it is one-on-one time.  This can certainly be challenging, particularly with younger children who get more easily frustrated by the challenges special needs children present.  My daughter is friendly with a little girl and while it doesn't always go smoothly between them, it often does, particularly if they play together without other kids around.   This little girl is very sweet but she can be bossy and what she enjoys with Maya is that Maya will let her call the shots in terms of what they play and how they play.  Maya is nearly always the dad when they play house and nearly always the student when they play school.  As a mom, I was a little concerned about this at first but I talked to Maya about it and Maya said, let her be the mom and the teacher, I don't care she cares a lot about it, and look how happy it makes her.  And although as a mom I would like to see my daughter choosing more, she has to follow her own personality and when I hear them playing, Maya is always having fun as a student or as a dad.

Ask parents what might be a good way for your children to do something together and if there are frustrations in the play, talk to your kids about it, explain why something might be challenging for someone else and encourage them to find what is good in the relationship.  Not only will it make a world of difference to a kid with special needs, but your own kid will develop compassion and will be better for it.

Was that so hard?


  1. Interesting post to read. People are so insensitive and it also drives me crackers. I am finding that my son is generating a lot more attention these days, since he has outgrown the *cute stage. My skin is a lot thicker, although I still feel a pang of pain when people stare too much and too obviously.

  2. Yes they are and I think it is easy to tell someone else to rise above but so much influences the decision about whether we choose to react or not and it happens in a split second. I usually try to think things through, but nothing will get me knee-jerking and telling people (in my best Debi Mazar acid-tongue), "mind your business!"