Raising Independent Children
Whenever parents of special needs children are together,
the topic of independence comes up. We assume that our normally developing
children will grow up, move away, and be totally independent of us
all too soon. But our children with special needs? We sure hope that
they can one day be independent of us, but how do we get them ready?
In this month’s column, we will look at some
ways we can help our children develop the character trait of independence
now, so that when they are adults, they will be in such a habit of
doing things themselves that it will be no big deal to them. Developing
character is simply a matter of practicing skills often enough that
it becomes a habit, or second nature. If you want the character trait
of truthfulness, you must practice the skill of telling the truth
over and over, so that it is comfortable for you to do so. And, more
importantly to this column, if you want the character trait of independence,
you must practice doing things for yourself so often that it becomes
For our children, the first step to this is AAC. Being
able to use an AAC system to talk to people who may not understand
their speech, signs or gestures is the starting point to being able
to do things on their own. We can foster this as parents by not speaking
for our kids, but having them do their own talking. Kids can use their
AAC system food in a restaurant, buy things at the store, tell people
how old they are, etc. and they will if we expect them to!
We can also give our kids chances to take the lead
in conversations. Our family likes to play charades. Josh and Caleb
like to take the lead in either telling us all whose turn it is or
requesting that we act out something familiar (as opposed to the Ghenges
Kahn scene that the older boys acted out, which no one knew enough
about to guess!) Giving children choices is another way to let them
take the lead. At my house, getting to choose what’s for supper
is a special privilege that everyone, including the twins, gets every
so often and on their birthday. Choosing breakfasts and snacks are
also great ways to make choices—maybe not as much fun as picking
what the whole family eats for dinner, but still a chance to practice
independence. Even the simple question, “What do you want to
do now?” is a way of helping a child to make decisions on her
Having jobs to do around the home is another good
way to help a child become more independent. Even if a child’s
physical impairment is substantial, with a little creativity we can
find a job for them to do. Using a power chair, a child can carry
the silverware over to the table, even if he or she can’t actually
set each piece in its place. Josh and Caleb love to be responsible
for putting wrappers from their snacks in the trash can. If your child
has enough motor skills, wiping off the tray can be good job to have.
At our house, even daily stretching exercises are referred to as “jobs.”
Learning that doing their stretches is part of what we expect of them
helps the boys to see themselves as people who are able to have responsibilities,
even though most of the actual work of positioning for the stretch
is done by others.
Another good way to use an AAC system to be independent
is helping with the grocery shopping. Have your child make a grocery
list---hooking the AAC system to the computer and printing off the
list makes it even better. Have you ever had your child help you in
the grocery store? I am amazed what Josh and Caleb can do with a power
chair and a small amount of hand control! (Yes, taking children with
power chairs into the grocery store to shop is not for the faint of
heart, but it can be really fun to see the reactions of others when
they see our cart lunging along under the direction of a 7 year old
driving under the influence of CP! Eventually fear changes to admiration
of their driving skills.)
One of the most important things we can do to help
our children become independent is to practice the self care skills
they will need to do as much as possible for themselves. Does your
child have enough motor skills to pull open the microwave and put
something in? Then have him prepare his own meal that way sometimes.
Can your child help with transfers? Then expect her to. Even with
the best of personal care situations, adults who use AAC sometimes
find themselves without an attendant. Every self help skill we can
teach and expect while our kids are at home will help make these tough
situations easier. Even using the telephone is a skill we can practice
at home that builds independence.
Practicing predictable social situations is important
for independence, especially for children with Autistic Spectrum Disorder.
Besides making phone calls, this might include meeting a new person,
paying for purchases at a store, or going to a movie.
Another situation that we can practice with our children
to help boost their independence is practicing what to do in emergencies.
The other things we have done to help our children interact with strangers
will help them out here as well, but it never hurts to be prepared
for the unforeseen.
Independence doesn’t happen overnight. But the
little things we do every day can have a profound effect on whether
our children develop that inner character of independence, or the
opposite character of learned helplessness. We as parents have the
special opportunity to look long term as we work with our children.
Teachers and other staff may change from year to year; we are the
only ones who will be here 10 years from now. If we are intentional
about it, we can practice the skills that will result in our children
becoming young adults who are ready to face the challenges of adult
life on their own, because they have learned the character trait of
As always, your questions and comments are important!
Feel free to e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org