Empowering Children With Special Needs for the Future

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Professionals who work with children with special needs echo the same advice for preparing them for independence.

Start now.

“Parents shouldn’t wait until their child is a teenager or in their last year of high school,” says Doreen Byrd, parent educator with Exceptional Children’s Assistance Center in Davidson. “Leaving it up to fate is not the way to go.”

Helping a child with special needs prepare for living on his or her own is not unlike the guidance parents provide typically developing children. Learning life and jobs skills may take more time and specialized assistance, but for many children with special needs, independence is an attainable goal.

And like many typically developing children, many children with special needs desire self-sufficiency as they mature.

“They want to have independence,” says Deborah Hofland, executive director of Philips Academy, a school that provides students with special needs the skills to be self-reliant. “There’s an enormous sense of pride when they are able to start doing things for themselves.”

Life Skills Matter
As Jane and Phil Blount’s son Philip was nearing middle school, they realized that a typical college preparatory curriculum would not benefit their son, who is diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder.

Along with longtime educator Barbara Parrish, they founded Philips Academy eight years ago. The school teaches skills that students can apply in the real world. Instead of learning algebra, for example, students learn how to calculate the amount of change they should receive back in a transaction.

Even the youngest children with special needs can learn skills that will help them live on their own, whether it’s packing a lunch, getting dressed or making their bed. Parents often fall into care-giving mode because it is easier for them do things for their child with special needs than to allow the child to do it himself.

Parents should push their children to try new skills, keeping in mind that their child may be capable of more than they think. Establishing challenging goals based on the child’s abilities will help determine his or her potential.

“In some cases, young people I know are perfectly capable of doing laundry or shampooing their own hair, and the parents are doing these things for them,” says Byrd. “Essentially, the parent doesn’t realize in their effort to help their kid, they are limiting their independence.”

Teaching life skills to a child with special needs can take a long time and require a lot of repetition, but years of practice can greatly help, says Jane Blount.

As children get older, they can learn real-world skills such as how to manage a debit car, write a check, sign their names and balance a checkbook online.

Many summer and school programs, including individualized education plans through public school systems, also can help children develop social skills, daily life skills and practical skills that can translate into successful independent living later.

Financial and Legal Planning
Parents also should begin planning early for the financial and legal issues that can be unique to children with special needs. Attorneys and financial planners who specialize in special needs are available.

“It’s very critical to get the right person guiding you and helping you,” says Hofland. Philips Academy regularly hosts community workshops to provide parents with legal and financial information.

Children age out of certain services when they turn 21, and specialized advisors can help parents figure out what assistance young adults with special needs can qualify for.

As children with special needs grow into teenagers, parents can begin thinking through issues of guardianship, independent living situations and job programs for their child. Some parents plan for how their child with special needs will be taken care of after they die.

Parents should be careful not to limit their child’s capabilities or make legal decisions that could take away decision-making power from young adults who may need more time to mature. While some children with special needs may not be ready to live on their own at age 18, they may be by age 23.

“Don’t think of your child as being sort of frozen in this stage of development forever,” says Byrd. “They will continue to learn and develop, (just) maybe behind the pace of other folks.”

On Their Own
Getting children and teenagers with special needs involved with outside activities and volunteering, whether it’s at the public library, a local nonprofit organization or a church, can provide invaluable preparation for holding down a job later.

Such opportunities can help them learn how to follow directions, cooperate with others and build endurance for working and living on their own. As young adults with special needs mature, parents should talk to them about where they would like to work and live.

Philip Blount is now 21, and he is transitioning into living into a condominium with a roommate. He works two restaurant jobs and has a close group of friends.

“He is working and achieving that independence,” says Jane Blount. “It has taken every bit of these eight years since the school was founded to get to this place.”

Read more:
2013-14 Exceptional Child Guide