Early intervention, therapy and stimulation may consume your life after your child is born with special needs or has been diagnosed with any type of disability. You’ll hear time and time again that the first three years of a child’s life are the most important for development, and at the same time, how crucial it is to take advantage of these years to provide the child with all the possible opportunities for stimulation and progress.
Under such pressure, it’s easy to find obsessive and desperate parents trying to squeeze more therapies, activities and interaction into each day. And these parents may bear the brunt of negative comments from family members or friends, who may see them as not being accepting of their own child.
It’s hard to understand how we may lose objectivity—all of us parents of kids with special needs have felt lost in that game at least once. And it’s not because we’re rejecting our children; it’s because we feel that we must do everything in our power to help them thrive.
DON’T LOSE SIGHT OF THE GOAL
Kids don’t have a clue about the benefits of early intervention, therapies or stimulation. So be aware that they may feel pressured and upset if constantly surrounded by people they don’t know, trying to make them talk, walk, or exercise dexterity and coordination without their consent.
No matter what the diagnosis of the child, he is a child first and his priority is to be loved, accepted and cuddled. Over-scheduling and overstimulating with activities that may or may not help your child progress in the long run does more harm than good, especially when he’s missing out on the love and affection he truly needs to thrive, regardless of his or her ability or disability.
FIND THE BALANCE
I’ve learned these rules through trial and error with my own kids, in conversations with other parents of children special needs and from observing other kids—both happy and unhappy ones—undergoing therapies of some sort.
- Don’t over-schedule. Instead of daily therapies, work with the therapist to discover exercises that you can incorporate in your child’s daily routine. A clinical environment is always scary and your little one may spend the whole therapy hour crying and complaining. But if you ask the therapist to explain to you what she’s doing and how to repeat it at home, you’ll be surprised at your child’s progress and engagement.
- Play, play and more play. Kids learn through play. Playing is a natural stimulator for kids and also for parents. Nothing is more motivating than seeing your child smile, respond and have fun with you. Play doesn’t need to be structured in order for it to be fun or beneficial. Let him choose what he wants to do and where he wants to play and just follow his lead. It doesn’t matter how silly you look or feel, be sure that every time he smiles, he’s learning something about himself, about you, and about all his possibilities.
- Embrace the real world. The real world brings unlimited opportunities for stimulation and learning. Put him in the stroller and walk around the block. Talk to him about the trees, the sky, and the animals around you. Let him touch the leaves and play with sand or dirt. Let him explore and live a moment of freedom to grow with no pressures or fears. He doesn’t need an iPad with the latest retina-eye application. He needs to use his own senses to experience the world around him. He needs trust, love and joy.
- Keep it simple. Many families would sell their souls to get expensive equipment, special needs toys or exclusive experiences for their kids’ development—whether it’s paying to play with dolphins or for horseback riding therapy. I’m sure these deliver great benefits, but you don’t need to put financial pressure on yourself to get these things. Many times their benefits are available in more typical experiences, like taking your child to the beach, letting him play and experience the sand in his toes, or having fun on a family trip while discovering unexpected opportunities to surprise him and have him learn and grow.
During the last nine years of raising two kids with Down syndrome, I have learned that everything has an answer. Part of raising someone with a disability is learning to believe, calm down, and understand that desperation doesn’t bring us anything helpful.
Breathe, close your eyes, think, and work toward a solution. Relax in order to love and enjoy your child. That’s the best way to stimulate him while strengthening those bonds of love that will keep you moving forward and making the miracles happen for your whole family.