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I was taken aback a couple of weeks ago by my son Chris’ secondary Special Education coordinator. During a meeting I’d requested, to try to minimize the level of direct support he will get next year, the coordinator pointed out (pointedly) that, although Chris’ tutor and I repeatedly stated that Chris could perform on his own, I continued to prompt him to sit up straight, answer questions, and pay attention. The coordinator stated, “If he can do this stuff on his own, why are you continuing to prompt him? I would expect a much higher level of participation from someone his age.”

Stop Hovering Over Your Special Needs Child
That was the 2X4 to the forehead: I have to stop hovering over my autistic son if I’m going to insist that the school do the same. But how do you do that when you can’t seem to make your child realize that it’s important to be seen sitting up straight (he was, in fact, slumping in the chair with his torso and arms sprawled over the top of the table), answering questions (he offers a single word or a frustrated sigh, but no concrete feedback) and looking like the future matters?

Just as with typical kids, the Mommy and Daddy Helicopter has to land. That meeting was my loud-and-clear hint that I can’t solve Chris’ problems for him anymore. If he is ever going to stand on his own two feet, he’s going to have to start doing it. He’s going to be a sixth grader next year. He’s never learned to be self-sufficient, but it’s time he started, and it’s time I got out-of-the-way.

The middle school Special Education coordinator wants him to be successful, and we do, too. But what does that look like?

How Typical Children Learn Independence
The advice for parents of typical children is just to stop doing the stuff your kid has to learn to do (usually executive functioning stuff like making sure all books and assignments are in backpacks in the morning, laundry is put away neatly in  drawers or hung up in closets, feed the dog, mow the lawn, brush your teeth). You just stop, and let your child reap the consequences of having things not done until he starts doing them. The expectation is that your kid will learn to do the things you stop doing and will be a better person for it.

My typical 9-year-old Luke forgets to put his socks in the hamper. He will figure out that clean socks don’t magically appear in the drawer if I don’t pick them up and wash them for him a couple of times. Dirty socks have to be washed, dried and put away…Luke can take a hint (just like typical AutieMom in the SpEd meeting). No clean socks in the drawer? They are your socks and your drawer: figure it out. I’ll help you reach the detergent.

How to Teach Independence to a Special Needs Child
But how do you adapt the advice of “just stop doing it” for typical kids to a child who can’t follow social cues?

  • Well, you explain it. Eleven-year-old autistic Chris needs the play-by-play: “You have left your socks, inside out and in little balls on the floor for four days now. You have 1 pair of clean socks left. If you want clean socks in two days, you will wash your white clothes, dry them and put them away.” Rinse and repeat; I fully expect to have this conversation again because I have done his laundry for years. In a way, clean socks do magically appear in the drawer…at least from his perspective. I’ve been the magician…to be consistent and respectful, I have to explain how to do it and why before I dump it on his lap.
  • The same goes for school work. I want him to understand the flow of the classroom. But he will have to have that explained, probably multiple times. Again, stuff has happened as if by magic historically. His lunch box has just gone in the bin, his homework has just appeared on his desk, his homework assignments just get written down in his homework log. His paraprofessionals have been the magicians at school. He has to learn the “tricks,” though, if he’s going to be independent.
  • We will have to have those conversations about schoolwork repeatedly, too: “If you want to get a good grade on your math homework, you will write down the assignment in your homework log, bring the log home, do your homework, bring your homework back to school and turn it in on time.”

Notice the sequencing of multiple steps, the time management and the organizational skills required? This is not easy stuff for my Autieboy to get a handle on, and it’s part of the reason other people have done it for him in the past. But he can do it. It’s not impossible, but it will take repetition, patience and discipline (on my part, Dad’s and the tutor’s as well as his) to get the routine to become, well, routine. It is possible. And it’s necessary for him to learn these skills because he’ll use them the rest of his life. Just like chores and other responsibilities, functioning independently doesn’t happen by magic, either.

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Kate Dran is a user experience analyst, professional writer, autism advocate and parent of 2 beautiful and perfect sons, one with autism, one developing typically. She founded Adaptive Solutions Analysis, LLC , a private consulting firm that provides usability assessments and user experience analysis for adaptive technologies that support the cognitive, sensory and motor development needs of K-12 students with autism. She believes that autism-friendly user experience is human-friendly user experience.