Raising a special needs child is a daunting task. Doing it by yourself can be downright terrifying.
She sat across from me at the bakery where we’d chosen to meet. She only had an hour to get as much information from me as she could before she needed to be at work. She hadn’t been a single mom long but in that time had discovered her daughter needed extra help at school. But the school wasn’t providing good supports and the things outlined in her IEP (Individual Education Plan) weren’t what the mom wanted. She needed help.
Oh how I love this kind of coffee date. I’ve done it many times—meeting with moms to empower them with the tools and information they need to be their child’s zealous advocate in school. I’ve been doing IEP meetings, teacher conferences, doctor’s visits, alternative therapies and diets, and so much more for almost 15 years. If I can’t use what I’ve learned to help others, why on earth did I learn it?
The number of kids on IEPs are skyrocketing in schools around the United States as autism rates climb and better evaluation methods are discovered to diagnose other learning challenges. Kids who learn differently can receive special supports, extra help, or other tools to help them thrive in a regular classroom.
Figuring out what is best for your child is a team effort that involves teachers and parents working together. The thought of sitting down with “experts” in education can make you feel completely overwhelmed. Here’s the good news: You don’t have to do this alone. Even if you are a single parent, there are ways to include others as your support and cheering section.
- Take someone with you to meetings. Many parents, including my friend in the bakery, are unaware that they have the right to take someone with them to meetings with teachers and special education staff. Sitting at a table with education professionals tossing around terms you are unfamiliar with can make you feel outnumbered, outgunned, and unintelligent. You can feel like they are the experts so you should just agree to what they say. Taking along a friend, a therapist who sees your child, or an advocate from a special needs group can help you feel empowered to voice your opinions and disagree if something doesn’t seem right.
- If you are divorced, create a co-parenting plan. If you are single because of divorce and the child’s father is still involved in their life, you need to be on the same page for therapies, discipline, and school interaction. A friend of mine is a family counselor and a large portion of her practice is helping divorced families find ways to co-parent productively. Sitting down with an agreed-upon mediator can help you work out how you can both best support your special needs child with consistent disciplines, routines, and similar terminology. Consistency helps all children thrive but it is essential for children with autism or other special needs. Setting aside your differences and working together for the best interests of your child is one of best gifts you can give them.
- Enlist help of other adults in the child’s life. Whether its grandparents, relatives, teachers, children or youth volunteers, pastors, or activities directors, there are a lot of other adults in your child’s life. Enlisting their help is an amazing tool. Make time to meet with important adults in your child’s life to explain his or her strengths and weaknesses. In the case of autism or other behavioral disabilities, explain triggers to meltdowns, coping strategies, and appropriate responses if the behavior is out of line. My son is in high school and his math teacher last year told me that sometimes when he’s really upset he would yell at her. BUT, she went on to explain, once he calmed down he always, without fail, came back and apologized for speaking to her that way. She thanked me for teaching him that. Many neurotypical kids don’t do that. Just because my son has autism does not mean he can treat adults rudely or disrespectfully. I teared up that he was putting this into practice even without me there to tell him.
You may be parenting on your own or mostly on your own but you don’t have to do everything alone. Building a team of caring, informed adults into your child’s life who can help him or her thrive is one of the greatest things you can do for them and for yourself. There’s no shame in asking for help. We were designed to live in community.
Whether you are a single mom or not, what’s one way you’ve reached out to others to build a team to help you raise your kids? I’d love to hear some creative suggestions in the comments.
For more information on your rights and your child’s rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Act, click here to check out parentcenterhub.org.
For more information on autism, visit autismspeaks.org.