Every July, millions of Americans celebrate independence. Independence from a mother nation, from taxation without representation, from religious persecution. But, as special needs parents, there is a different battle for independence that we do not celebrate. I’m talking about the battle raging within us to allow our special needs child to be independent.
Our special kids face so many challenges – learning, physical, health, social, and communication – the list goes on and on. They spend their free time in therapies, not on the ball field like their peers. Their lives are so difficult and as their parents, we want to make things easier. We see them struggling every day with the basics of living, so what harm can it do help them out? Ask the teachers and therapists – they’ll tell you a lot!
Part of the problem in our house is that John simply doesn’t want to be independent in most things. He is perfectly content to let me do everything for him. I have to force him (and myself to let him) to do basic tasks every day. I have had the blessing to be the parent to both an autistic child and a neurotypical one. I remember when John was around three; I took him to the pediatrician. I asked when I should expect him to use utensils to eat. The doctor reassured me that he would go through an “I do it!” phase. I waited and waited, but it never came. It wasn’t until our youngest came along that I realized exactly what the doctor was talking about. Nathan doesn’t want me to do ANYTHING anymore! He thinks that the ripe old age of three and a half, that he can do it all. From picking out his clothes to using the microwave, he is the master of everything. John, on the other hand… not so much.
And let’s face it – sometimes is it just easier to do things for them. For almost eight years, I have worked with John about putting on his shoes and socks. We have sung songs, watched videos, and practiced every day. He even had it as homework for a week last school year! But every morning, he acts like it is completely foreign. Part of it is that he really likes being barefoot, but the other part is that he just doesn’t care. So every morning, I try, get frustrated, give up, and put on his shoes for him. Yes, I know he can do it and he’s playing me, but I have to get his butt out the door and on the bus!
I think the hardest part of the battle is that it is so difficult to accept that we won’t be around forever to help. Deep down we know this, and it looms like a dark cloud in our minds. We know that the independent skills are so necessary, but making sure that the children can perform them is a form of admission that one day they will be on their own. And it is terrifying.
So fellow special parents, put on your mental armor. Fight that battle and let your child struggle to be independent. Clean up the spills. Plan the extra time needed. Resist the urge to do it yourself. Then celebrate the wins with a cold beer and fireworks if need be. I’ll still be working with John to put on his shoes.