I spend a lot of my work week with toddlers, and they can be a challenge. One minute sunny, the next screaming because their cookie broke. Special needs toddlers can have a ‘tude as well, but many professionals sweep it under the rug. They tell parents that this is normal, and that they should be grateful that their child is going through a completely normal stage of development.
Except that many parents who have already raised typically-developing kids KNOW that there is a difference with THIS child. It could be the intensity of the ‘tude, or the frequency of the meltdowns, or the types of events that trigger the tantrums. OR ALL OF THEM! Parents know that this behavior doesn’t feel the same, but they often shut up when they are told that it is so normal. Perhaps their eyes, and ears, and memory, aren’t telling them the truth.
They aren’t wrong.
Their perception that something is a bit different can be totally correct. And the reason(s) are quite obvious to me.
Special needs kids come in an almost endless combination of needs. Some are physical, some are communication needs, and some are cognitive or social skill needs. Some kids have all of these. Having challenges in moving, speaking, comprehending language and/or understanding concepts, or struggling to interact, will create more frustration in every single day of a child’s life. That’s the reality of disability.
The image of the placid and sweet special needs child, patiently waiting to be assisted and supported is just that: an image. Most kids bump into frustrating barriers every day. The toddler that has just learned to walk but can’t run, the toddler that is talking or signing but still isn’t understood by their older brother, the toddler that cannot handle a change in routines…it goes on and on.
Typical toddlers spend less time frustrated that they are unable to accomplish simple skills. The typical 14 month-old that can’t tell you what he wants becomes the 18-month old that can say “cakker, pease” for “cracker, please”. A special needs child could be 2 1/2 years old and still struggling to explain that he wants another cracker. That is a long time to be frustrated over getting another cracker.
The typical 26 month-old that can’t run after their big brother in the backyard becomes a runner at 30 months. A special needs child may not run for years. That is a long time to be left in the dust when everyone else is running. Is there any wonder that parents see more frustration, more tears, more stubbornness?
My saddest story of failed inclusion is when a family placed their special needs child in a toddler development group with mobile kids. Even though this child had a personal aide, he still watched as his peers got up from the snack table and ran outside. They left him with the aide, who then carried him outside so he could WATCH his peers climb and run. He became distraught at home when he was left alone in a room. A puddle of tears. It was so sad to see. No one (that made the decision to mainstream him) had thought of the emotional cost of inclusion to this toddler, only the social and academic benefits.
What can be done?
I teach families the Happiest Toddler on the Block strategies as soon as they are appropriate. Dr. Karp’s techniques build a child’s skills while enhancing interpersonal connections Teaching Children Emotional Regulation: Can Happiest Toddler on the Block Help Kids AND Adults?. Yes, sometimes you have to provide consequences for physical aggression, but mostly you focus on building frustration tolerance and emotional intelligence. For everyone. I use these techniques all day long. I could never handle so many toddlers for so many years without them!
Looking for more information on special needs toddlers? Read Need to Support A Child’s Independence? Offer to Help Them! and Safety Awareness With Your Hypermobile Child? Its Not a Big Thing, Its the Biggest Thing.