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August 7, 2022
"Full inclusion within a supportive, encouraging home environment that accepts the child's limitations...allows the child to view himself/herself as accepted and included..."
-- Charlyne Gelt, Ph.D., (PSY22909), M.F.T.

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Parenting Special Needs Children

by Charlyne Gelt, Ph.D., (PSY22909), M.F.T.
Article for SFV-CAMFT Newsletter -- August 2002 Issue

Parenting can be rewarding and challenging, as well as demanding and discouraging -- especially in a family where there is a "special needs" child. By "special needs" I am referring to those persons who have been assessed by qualified professionals, and who require special programs and/or related services for aphasia, autism, blindness, deafness, developmental handicaps, the educable retarded, speech and language impaired, learning disabled, orthopedically or multi-handicapped, partially sighted, seriously emotionally disturbed, or the trainable mentally retarded. The goal is to ensure that children with disabilities receive an appropriate education and related services as required by law.

Today, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act legally enables mainstreaming or full inclusion of all children -- including "special needs" children -- in the regular classroom setting. Briefly, it states that special needs children, regardless of the disability, may not be separated from the "normal environment." They are entitled to be in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) and may receive their education, to the maximum extent appropriate, with non-disabled peers. Further, the California Department of Education (CDE) developed guidelines for use of Individual Education Plan (IEP) teams that offer the necessary support services to implement such goals.

However, full inclusion or "mainstreaming" in a school situation does not, in itself, translate into a sense of socially "fitting-in" and acceptance by one's peers. What it does do is foster opportunities for social, emotional and academic interactions that begin to break down the present barriers against social acceptance.

All in the Family

So, while the issue of inclusion in the classroom setting has now been resolved in the courts, it may not have been adequately addressed within the family system. Yet family is the first group to which a child belongs, and from which he or she receives acceptance, recognition, and inclusion. These responses become the primary goal of a child's interaction with parents. Since all behaviors occur in a social context (again, the primary one being the family), inclusion is the way the family interrelates, regardless of a child's ability or disability, and this requires reciprocal interactions to the capacity of the child's ability.

When parents view the child as fragile, weak, handicapped or disabled, the child learns to view himself/herself in the same way. When the parent learns to talk to the strength of the child, he/she is able to view him/herself as capable and of value within the family system. For example, if all family members have duties and responsibilities, such as taking out the trash, setting the dinner table, or helping in the yard -- except for the special needs child -- then he/she learns to see him/herself as less-than, not as good as, or dependent. Doing simple tasks for the child that the child could do for himself or herself promotes a defeatist, victim attitude within the special needs child, while it also builds resentment within the siblings whose own developmental needs may not be getting met. Talking about a special needs child, ignoring the child's presence, or treating the child as an object, does not lend to full inclusion within the family system. It is unfortunate though not uncommon, for parents of special needs children to talk for their child or about their child as though the child wasn't even in the room.

Full inclusion within a supportive, encouraging home environment that accepts the child's limitations while setting physically appropriate responsibilities by clearly defining roles and expectations, allows the child to view himself/herself as accepted, included, and a valued member within the family. This helps build the child's self-esteem and sense of adequacy and significance. Every child has a gift, a skill, a strength or talent to offer. The parents' challenge is to find it, maximize it, and then help the child develop it to full potential. For example, one special needs young man I worked with could not get out and play football because he was wheelchair bound. However, he loved the game and in his mind he became an eager participant. Thus, he learned the game's strategy, and on paper skillfully planned moves and countermoves from his wheelchair that led his team to victory. Another, an autistic child whose deadened affect locked away his feelings as though encased in armor, was able to open up to the outside world by describing his thoughts as cartoon caricatures. It served as a door opener to his inner world and it won sincere praise and encouragement from family members who were unaware of his natural inclination for detail and his ability to illustrate.

"I Can Do" Attitude

A child's successful accomplishment of clearly defined developmental and age-appropriate goals creates an "I can do" attitude that increases the likelihood of healthy emotional and social interactions outside the family. When a child sees himself or herself as useful and competent, other life experiences, whether they occur at home, at school, in a relationship, or in the community, are viewed through this lens.

I encourage families of special needs children to address the issue of full inclusion within the family system. It is the capacity to do for oneself that translates into greater social acceptance by peers.