The Word That’s Important to Focus on as a Special Needs Parent


When you have a child with special needs, you might hear these words: limitations, impairments, disabilities, delays or challenges. And in the beginning you might think, What does this mean for my child? What does the future hold? While it may be easier to to frame your child’s potential within these limitations provided by doctors or schools, I believe it’s better to focus on one word: potential.

Potential means possibilities. Potential means progress. Potential means we as parents can believe in our child more than anyone else. Potential means opportunities to succeed, to make goals and help our child take steps to reach them. Here are four reasons why goal setting is essential for any child with special needs:

1. Goals are individual and personal, not for comparing.

Whenever I hear the word “individual,” I think of IEPs: Individualized Education Plans. The thing I love about IEPs is that they are made just for my child and no on else’s. They’re not comparing my child’s progress to any other child’s. And that’s just what goals should be: individualized.

There was a meeting about five years ago where I requested that a goal be added to my daughter’s IEP (one involving a life skill). One person was astounded we would even consider this goal and explained that many children in school do well despite not reaching it. She said that the school district could not promise success but could help her do some small tasks in the school setting.

I didn’t settle for that answer — I didn’t want to compare her to any other child, because as her parent, I know her better than anyone. I found a new way for her to reach this life skill. She learned it in our home with a trained professional in just three sessions.

Don’t be afraid to dream the outside the so-called boundaries for your child — he just might achieve it.

2. You will never know until you try.

When I was a younger mom, I got trapped in the mindset that Julianna, my daughter on the autism spectrum, just wouldn’t be able to do certain things. One day my husband decided it was time to teach our two older kids to ride bikes.

“You don’t mean Julianna, right? How is she going to learn?” I asked him.

“We have to try!” he replied.

So we spend the entire winter break that year in a parking lot. Our middle child, Blake, who was 6 at the time, caught on right away. Julianna, our 9-year-old, was struggling. But my husband didn’t give up. Day by day, she made more progress. It was like a miracle unfolding before our eyes. By the end of the break, she was riding independently. To me, she achieved what I before thought was impossible.

I believe in trying, and it doesn’t even have to end in success. Either way, you will learn something valuable about your child.

3. Every child can progress in some way.

As a younger mom, I also felt overwhelmed by the many therapies my daughter was involved in. Most times it seemed like she wasn’t making any progress at all because I couldn’t see results. If I could go back, I would have kept at some of these therapies longer. Progress is hard to measure at times. Looking back now, I can see how the different therapies we did stick to have helped her. She learned to walk through physical therapy. She has improved her speech through speech therapy. She learned fine motor skills and self-regulation skills through occupational therapy. She’s learned and is still learning life and social skills through ABA therapy.

I am amazed at how far she has come, and how much my perception of her potential has evolved. Limitations cannot rob any child of potential. Progress is happening, even when you can’t see it.

4. You will have more purpose as a parent, and your child will have more self-worth.

Parents are hard-wired to relish in the milestones of their children. We love high-fives, sticker charts, giving awards and certificates. Seeing our child accomplish a new skill is rewarding and often worth celebrating. And guess what? It’s just as rewarding for our children. I believe they love the high-fives, hugs, and pats on the back even more.

Last summer, we made a goal for Julianna to stop a troubling behavior, something she had done for years. We reached out to a child psychologist for help and adopted a method to help her reach this goal. It took many weeks of trial and error, but in the end, she achieved it. The psychologist knew this was a big milestone for her, so she invited the whole family to her home to have a party for Julianna. We had a cake and small gifts, and she was given a fancy certificate. This moment gave my daughter confidence and self-worth, and it gave me a memory to cherish forever as a parent.

As parents, we are walking down the path beside our child. We might wish we could walk the path for them, be in their shoes, but we can’t. It’s their path, and we are the guides. We can’t force progress, but we can foster it. We can’t create success, but we can channel it. We can help them find the right path to take.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

— From “The Road Not Taken,” by Robert Frost

As special needs parents, we have to be open to “the road not taken.” The “road less traveled” might be a little more lonely, but I can promise you, you will make new friends along the way. It really will make all the difference. Never cease to dream about what your child can do. What is your child’s destination? How will you help him get there?

Follow this journey on The Special Reds.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

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