October has been an interesting month for those of us in the special needs community. Throughout this month, there have been Down syndrome awareness, Dyslexia awareness, ADHD awareness, and Cerebral Palsy awareness going on. On October 7, people around the world wore green outfits to mark the Cerebral Palsy Awareness Day. I did not join the rally here in Lagos, but I wore a green blouse to work. Although I have a similar post, to celebrate this month I had considered writing about these different disorders; but as October is also Nigeria's independence anniversary, I decided to write something else in the spirit of independence.
I used to work with a boy living with autism, who used to have major sensory overload. To calm him down, we would wrap a blanket around him to provide deep pressure. After a while, we taught him to ask for a break, go to the sensory room, which was close to his class, and give himself the blanket roll. What a relieve that gave him, and us. Working with children with different kinds of special needs, in different centers, I have learnt that the big picture of our job is for the individuals to attain maximum independence. As we prepare the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for each child; setting goals for each term, month, week, and day, the main aim is to help the individual attain maximum independence, depending on the severity of the condition. Sincerely, different children will attain different levels of independence, but the desire is for each child to attain the maximum level of independence he/she can attain.
As a parent, sometimes the easiest thing to do is to help your child do what he/she should do without assistance. I know that it is faster, easier, and it has less hassle to just help the child. Yes, your son spills his food when he eats, and you have to sweep after he is done, so you would rather just feed him. Okay, your daughter wastes your time if she gives herself her bath, and that makes you late. I work with this children, and I can tell you that there are times I am so tempted to prompt (assist with) an activity a child is supposed to do independently, because it is the easy way out. But think about this; that your child will not always be a child. Do you know you will not be there forever? What will happen then? I am not overlooking the fact that the child's case may be severe, but can he/she be as independent as possible?
I hope that parents of children with different needs can learn from this article, but I may be speaking from the autism perspective mostly (it's not my fault, the blog is Autism Gist). There are certain skills neuro-typical children pick up as they grow up, without someone actually teaching them, but children with autism have to be taught specifically. A major example of such skills is a group of skills referred to as Activities for Daily Living (ADL); bathing, brushing, using the toilet, dressing up, etc. Imagine a 35-year-old man, who cannot clean up after using the toilet, or a young lady who cannot give herself a bath. I am sure that is not a pretty thing to imagine. Teaching ADL is not exclusive to children living with autism, it is also needed by people with other disorders. As much as you are particular about building your child's cognitive skill, social skill, behavior, communication and what have you, know that your child's basic skills will not come automatically as these other skills are built; you have to TEACH the skills.
Dealing with a non-verbal child can serve as a limitation to encouraging independence. First, it is important to help the child find appropriate ways to communicate (I have an article here about communication for children that are non-verbal or limited in speech); but in helping a non-verbal child to be independent, you may need to consider the use of pictures. In fact, pictures can be useful even if the child is verbal. It will serve as a visual aid, giving pictures to the words spoken. Another important way of encouraging independence is routine. You can create a schedule plan for your child, which breaks down activities he/she has to do for each day; and stick to it.
Removing the reins can be a bit difficult, but you can create a plan on how to go about it. You can speak with your child's therapist, who can help you with planning. Take it one step at a time, but don’t be slow about it. Remember to put in perspective the severity or mildness of your child's condition, and the level of support your child requires at every given time. You will be frustrated, and your child will be frustrated if the tasks seem unachievable.
So as we celebrate Nigeria's independence, I look forward to celebrating with you, your child's level of independence in a near future. We will celebrate together each milestone, because your child can do much more than you can imagine.
All the best, and I hope it's not too late, or "too early" to say Happy Independence to you.