Tag Archives: special needs children

How an Occupational Therapist Can Help The Siblings of Special Needs Children

 

joao-rafael-662575-unsplashThe parent of one of my clients recently returned from a conference related to her youngest child’s genetic disorder, and she told me that the presentation on helping the siblings of special needs kids really only offered one niblet of advice: “Try to give each sibling 10 minutes a day of “just us” time.”

My shoulders, and my heart, fell.  Telling exhausted and worried parents that they need to find more time in their day, every day, isn’t fair.  This mom could have used so many more specific strategies.  She didn’t need another way to feel inadequate to the challenge.  When you have a special needs child, you don’t have extra time.  Some days you aren’t sure you will be able to shower and shampoo.  Even if you could carve out some time by delegating and hiring help, the truth is that living with constant worry about the present and the future, running chronically short on sleep, and perhaps still recovering from a NICU nightmare…this doesn’t lend itself to stellar time management.

There are things that really do help.  Among them are getting the right kind of assistance and support, sharing the knowledge you receive from specialists, and handling everybody’s feelings with compassion (including self-compassion) and honesty.    Occupational therapists are out there helping families deal with life, since we have a solid background in the science of occupational demands and the psychological responses to illness, injury and trauma.  We aren’t psychotherapists, but we study the science of healthy life routines and behaviors.  We also spend a lot of time learning what special needs kids need to thrive, and this includes supporting the siblings and parents of our clients.

Here are some of the things I wish that the presenters had suggested:

  1. Ask your child’s therapists to train more of your family members and caregivers.  This means the partner that isn’t the primary caregiver for a special needs child, but it also could be the grandparent or the babysitter that is the backup emergency caregiver.  There are parents who feel they can never take a break because a half-spa day would mean that no one knows how to prevent their child from falling down the steps or how to know when a child is going in the direction of a meltdown that will derail the day.  If you have a medically fragile child, more people need to know how to keep them safe and healthy.  Your child’s therapists are skilled in providing training in their area of specialization.  They may not offer it to your other family  members unless you ask for it to be done.  This is an investment in your peace of mind.  Make it happen.
  2. Find out if your child’s siblings can enter a therapy session and learn more about how to help or encourage their special needs sibling.  Therapists can teach your child’s siblings, and because they are seen as authorities and not parents, this can work well to foster understanding and interest.  Even preschool kids can learn why the baby isn’t playing with them( but she is watching) and that means “I like you”.  Your therapists are pediatric specialists and are good at helping children of all ages, even if your social needs child is an infant.
  3. Learn methods to spread your warmth and concern without promising time commitments you may not be able to keep.  Something so simple (and explained in more detail in my new book below) is to talk with your child’s siblings about your feelings of anticipation before some fun event, even if it is reading a chapter in Harry Potter.  Telling them, days ahead, that you can’t wait to be with them can feel so good.  Later, you can remind them how much fun you had.  Don’t require them to reciprocate.  You are speaking about your feelings, and if they brush it off then don’t take it personally.  Tweens especially struggle with how to respond.  They still need to hear your warmth.
  4. Express your frustrations honestly, but mindfully, to your child’s siblings.  You will both feel better for it.  You don’t have to wail and keen, and in fact I would discourage that.  You can do that with your partner or your counselor.  But your other children need to know that feeling less than blissfully grateful for their special needs sibling is normal and not shameful.  When some feelings are perceived as unacceptable, they grow in importance and sprout little behavioral problems of their own.  Start by speaking about how tired you are.  It is honest and it is probably already visible.  Mention that you feel both things; love and frustration.  You have to adjust for your other children’s age and emotional tolerance, but I promise you:  this is going to really help.
  5. Ask for help.  And accept it when it is offered.  Some people don’t think they need help, and some don’t think they deserve it.  Some think that it will be seen as weakness or laziness.  Some ask for help and get a casserole instead of babysitting.  Some get advice instead of a casserole.  And some turn down help to avoid feeling as tired and frightened as they really feel deep inside.  Think carefully about how and why you don’t have or accept help, and try doing what doesn’t feel natural or easy.  It could be the best move you make this week.
  6. Reconsider the amount of therapy and tutoring you are doing.  I know; what therapist thinks you can overdo their own treatment?  Me.  Overscheduling therapies can backfire when you, your special needs child, and the rest of your family suffer from the demands.  The time demands, the loss of participation in real life fun like hayrides and playgrounds, etc.  The downtime that any normal person needs and so few parents and special needs kids get.  That affects siblings too, in lost time with parents and exhausted parents trying to wedge “me time” into a free moment.
  7. Make choices about what your priorities are, but allow yourself to have a priority that is not all about your child.  For example, you may have to accept that your house isn’t going to be spotless, and that you may be buying rather than making most of the holiday cookies.  But if making a few batches of a precious family recipe (my best friend from college makes her Scottish grandmother’s recipe for fruit squares) will make you feel like a million bucks, then go ahead.  Yes, life with a special needs child is different from what you expected.  But you get to have some things from your previous life that bring joy!

I am so excited to report that my newest e-book is finally done!

The JointSmart Child:  Living and Thriving With Hypermobility Volume One:  The Early Years is designed to empower the parents of hypermobile kids ages 0-5.  There are chapters on picking the right high chair, toys, even pajamas!  One section is just on improving communication with your family (including siblings), teachers, therapists and even doctors.  No other book answers questions that parents have about finding good eating utensils and how to navigate playdates and social events more successfully.

It is available on Amazon as a read-only download and on Your Therapy Source as a printable and click-able download.  Look for more information and a sneak peek at the ways every parent can learn what therapists know about positioning here:The JointSmart Child Series: Parents of Young Hypermobile Children Can Feel More Empowered and Confident Today!

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Hypermobility Or Low Tone? Three Solutions to Mealtime Problems

 

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Many young hypermobile kids, with and without low muscle tone, struggle at mealtimes. Even after they have received skilled feeding therapy and can chew and swallow safely, they may continue to slide off their chair, spill food on the table (and on their body!) and refuse to use utensils.

It doesn’t have to be such a challenge.  In my new e-book coming out this year, I will address mealtime struggles.  But before the book is out there, I want to share three general solutions that can make self-feeding a lot easier for everyone:

  1. Teach self-feeding skills early and with optimism.  Even the youngest child can be taught that their hands must be near the bottle or cup, even when an adult is doing most of the work of holding it.  Allowing your infant to look around, play with your hair, etc. is telling them “This isn’t something you need to pay attention to.  This is my job, not yours.”  If your child has developmental delays for any reason, then I can assure you that they need to be more involved, not less.  It is going to take more effort for them to learn feeding skills, and they need your help to become interested and involved.  Right now.  That doesn’t mean you expect too much from them.  It means that you expect them to be part of the experience.  With a lot of positivity and good training from your OT or SLP, you will feel confident that you are asking for the right amount of involvement. Read Teach Spoon Grip By Making It Fun And Sharing a Laugh With Your Child and Teach Utensil Grasp and Control…Without the Food! for some good strategies to get things going.
  2. Use excellent positioning.  Your child needs a balance of stability and mobility.  Too much restriction means not enough movement for reach and grasp.  Too much movement would be like eating a steak while sitting in the back seat of your car doing 90 mph.  This may mean that they need a special booster seat, but more likely it means that they need to be sitting better in whatever seat they are in.  Read Kids With Low Muscle Tone Can Sit For Dinner: A Multi-Course Strategy for more ideas on this subject.  Chairs with footplates are a big fave with therapists, but only if a child has enough stability to sit in one without sliding about and can actively use their lower legs and hips for stabilization.  Again, ask your therapist so that you know that you have the right seat for the right stage of development.
  3. Use good tableware and utensils.  If your child is well trained and well supported, but their plates are sliding and their cups and utensils slide out of their hands, you still have a problem.  Picking out the best table tools is important and can be easier than you think.  Items that increase surface texture and fill the child’s grasping hand well are easiest to hold.  Read The Not-So-Secret Solution for Your Child With Motor And Sensory Issues: Dycem and OXO for Kids: Great Tableware For Older Kids With Sensory and Motor Issues for some good sources.  Getting branded tableware can be appealing to young children, and even picking out their favorite color will improve their cooperation.  Finally, using these tools for food preparation can be very motivating.  Children over 18 months of age can get excited about tearing lettuce leaves and pouring cereal from a small plastic pitcher.  Be creative and have fun!

 

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Does Your Special Needs Child Have a “Two-tude”? Its Not Just the Age; Its Frustration Minus Skills

 

patrick-fore-557736I 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 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 isn’t correct.

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 are all of these.  Having challenges in moving, speaking, comprehending language and/or concepts or struggling to interact will create more frustration for 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 4 years old and still struggling to explain that he wants another cracker.  That is a long time to be frustrated.  The typical 26 month-old that can’t run after their 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 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 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.  Yes, sometimes you have to provide consequences for aggression, but mostly it is about 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.

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KickStart Kindergarten: Get Your Child Ready for Kindergarten Writing The Easy Way!

 

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Starting kindergarten is so exciting for most kids, but learning to write can be challenging for those children that have fASD, SPD, fine motor or visual-motor issues.  Even though fewer and fewer teachers know how to teach handwriting well, it is still a necessary skill for young children.  Learning Without Tears has developed an amazing book that can help your child build skills faster and easier:  Kickstart Kindergarten!

Why Writing (Still) Really Matters

There are research studies that suggest that the physical act of forming letters positively affects memory and comprehension.  These studies suggest the benefits continue all the way through into college-level instruction.  Handwriting is a multi-sensory experience.  The brain is using many different areas of the brain are involved in organizing and coordinating it’s tasks to execute the ability to write.  Young brains need to practice and achieve a high level of coordinated activity before they can focus on comprehension and critical thinking.

The demands of writing create neural activity that could be considered  “brain exercise”.   I know I see it that way.  Taking notes at the high school and college level requires synthesis; the cognitive act of summarizing and condensing a lecture into a shorter message that you write down quickly.  It is a mental skill not required when you take verbatim notes on a laptop.  Oops.

Simply put, the reason keyboarding and digital access isn’t enough is simple:  by the time struggling writers are able to put their thoughts into words in a digital format, they have already developed frustration and even aversion to engaging in writing in any form.  

This is unacceptable to me.  Clever and creative kids are learning to dislike language arts because they can’t write with enough skill and speed.  I have struggling writers ask me: “How many words do I need in each sentence, and how many sentences”  This isn’t making them develop their ability to compose anything.  It is making them hate language arts.  At a time where communication skills are essential to success at any profession.

Kickstart Kindergarten:  Fun, Well-Designed, and Easy to Teach:

This workbook is the one you want to give your new preschool graduate this summer!  Filled with activities that boost the automaticity needed to go to kindergarten.

Here are some, but not all, of the terrific features of this workbook:

  • As with all HWT books, the paper is sturdy and won’t tear with repeated erasing or careless handling.
  • The individual letter pages start with tracing and fade to independence.
  • The gray boxes help kids with consistent and age-appropriate sizing and avoid reversals.  BTW, reversals are normal at this age.  Preventing reversals is even better than correcting them.  This book does both.
  • Each sample is placed near the space available for a child to write.  They don’t need to move their hand or copy the errors they made in the previous attempt (big issue for any kid with ocular control issues or visual organization issues!)
  • Letters are grouped into developmentally-correct bunches, based on the later pre-K motor developmental milestones.  This means that an “A” isn’t the first letter learned.  Letters that are all vertical and horizontal lines are the easiest to form, so they are first.
  • There are still coloring opportunities and plenty of chances to repeat and practice.
  • They include pages for parents and teachers to use as formation references.  You can’t teach writing if you aren’t sure how a letter is supposed to be formed.  I will confess that after taking the evaluation course, I found out that I have some very bad habits that probably date back to preschool.  And never got fixed.
  • Numbers are not ignored.  Numbers are presented in order, but their formation is actually not far from a developmental progression.

Here are some shots to get you excited about this book:

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Is your child entering first grade but in need of more practice?  These books aren’t going to make them feel self-conscious about needing help.  Take off the cover if you are worried that they will be embarrassed to use a book with Kindergarten int he title.  And tell them that this is the easiest way to get better at handwriting …fast!  You have their back, as always!

Boost Pincer Grasp With Tiny Containers

These days I am getting pretty…lazy.  My go-to items are designed so that children automatically  improve their grasp or their posture without my intervention.  I am  always searching for easy carryover strategies to share with parents too.  As with most things in life, easy is almost always better than complicated.

My recent fave piece of equipment to develop pincer grasp in toddlers and preschoolers is something you can pick up in your grocery store, but you are gonna use it quite differently from the manufacturer’s marketing plan….

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Remember these?

Enter the tiny party cup, AKA the disposable shot glass!  Yes, the one you used when you played “quarters” in school.  The very same.  These little cups work really well to teach toddlers to drink from an open cup, but they are also terrific containers to promote pincer grasp in young children.  Drop a few small snacks into these little cups and discourage them from dumping their snack onto the table instead of reaching inside with their fingers.

No matter how small your child’s fingers are, they will automatically attempt a tripod or pincer grasp to retrieve their treat.  You should’t have to say much of anything, but it never hurts to demonstrate how easy it is.  Make sure you eat your snack once you take it out of your cup.  After all, grownups deserve snacks too!

These little containers are much sturdier than paper cups.  This means that they can survive the grasp of a toddler who cannot grade their force well.  The cylindrical shape, with a slightly smaller base than top, naturally demands a refined grasp.  The cups have a bit of texture around the middle of the cup (at least mine do)  which gives some helpful tactile input to assist the non-dominant hand to maintain control during use.  They are top-shelf dishwasher safe and hand-washable, in case you feel strongly that disposables aren’t part of your scene.

Has your child mastered pincer grasp?  These little cups are fun to use in water and sand tables as well.  Mastery of pouring and scooping develops strong wrist and forearm control for utensil use and pre-writing with crayons.

For more ideas on developing grasp, take a look at Want Pincer Grasp Before Her First Birthday? Bet You’ll Be Surprised At What Moves (Hint) Build Hand Control! and Develop Pincer Grasp With Ziploc Bags.

 

Tantrum Taming With Special Needs Toddlers

Toddler tantrums are difficult to handle in the first place. The screaming, throwing and hitting can come as a wave of emotion that overwhelms and frightens both the child and the parent. When you have a toddler that may be emotionally age-appropriate but has difficulty expressing thoughts or understanding language, and add trouble handling sensory information, and you have a real problem. These children need our best efforts to help them navigate these waters.

Some special needs children remain at the toddler stage beyond the 18-4 year range. Those children are especially prone to explosions, as some of their abilities race ahead of skill acquisition (language, movement, self-calming) that would help them cope with emotional turmoil.

If you cannot reason with a special needs child who is having a tantrum, what can you do? Although he did not create his techniques for this population, Dr. Harvey Karp’s toddler communication techniques have been very effective for me in my work. He emphasizes gestures/facial expression and use repeated short phrases. Solving the cause of the tantrum comes AFTER acknowledging the child’s feelings. I will not say that every tantrum has evaporated, but I have seen simply amazing results.

The hardest part for me was that his primary technique requires me to sound, well, like a toddler. Communicating with a child in such a simple, primitive way took some practice. But looking incompetent in front of his parents wasn’t so wonderful either.

Dr. Karp’s book “the Happiest Toddler on the Block” has been revised since I first read it, and the new and improved edition is even more user-friendly. If you parent a special needs child or work with one, it is worth learning this compassionate and effective program.

does this look familiar? read on!

does this look familiar? read on!