Someone recently asked for my advice for parents of children with special needs. I am really not in much of an advice giving position; I’m just a little further down the path for special needs than some other folks, and stumbling my way through this land just like anyone else. But, some folks would say that nearly 15 years working with people with special needs plus my own two super-powered children gives me a unique perspective on this land.
Here’s my big piece of advice: get your kids out! Get them out in the community, in the parks, in public spaces, and in local children’s programs.
This is not earth-shattering advice and is definitely not medically based or very scientific – or is it?
When I worked with adults with developmental disabilities nearly 15 years ago our program focussed on getting the people we worked with out and in the community. Part of the reason was it was the individual’s right to be an active community member – gone are the institutions that warehoused people for a lifetime.
Now people with disabilities are recognised as able to make meaningful contributions to their communities. As staff supporting people with developmental disabilities, our mantra was ‘get them out!’ We visited beaches, parks, coffee shops and any community festival going. Some of the people I supported worked in grocery stores (collecting shopping carts) and others worked in sheltered workshops (where they had their own community of co-workers).
Beyond the individual’s fundamental right to freedom and dignity, getting out in the community is a great way to practice valuable skills in a real life context. Counting money, placing an order, using transit are all invaluable skills for independent living and individual growth.
Consider neurological development. We now know about neuroplasticity and brain growth – the brain will grow and change as the individual learns new skills, and the bottom line is use it or lose it. People continue to learn and grow throughout their lifetimes.
I could create a program for counting money and have the person I support practice use plastic coins – or I could take them to Tim Horton’s. I hand them a twoonie and watch them order a double-double. * In which situation do you think the person is going to be more motivated, involved and have a richer learning experience?
Where do you think the individual will feel more ‘normal’? Which situation fosters dignity and independence?
In the Ontario school system our focus is learning math through problem solving in real life contexts. Educators have discovered students learn more and make greater connections to previous learning and have higher levels of understanding and application in real life problem solving, as opposed to traditional paper-pencil ways of learning. If we go back to our concept of neuroplasticity, we are making more connections in the brain, and fostering brain growth. In short, we are learning.
When we relate this to children with special needs, we need to maximize learning opportunities – so get them out to beaches, parks, community programs and events. It’s really simple, but so powerful.
*Standard Canadian Apology: I had to include these Canadian icons in this post, for the uninitiated Tim Horton’s is a popular chain of coffee shops, a twoonie is a two dollar coin, and a double-double is a coffee with two cream and two sugar.