The First Step to Helping a Special-Needs Kid: Get Organized

I imagine that’s easier said than done—and that for many parents, their child’s heartaches become their own.

Absolutely. The other thing I often see as a professional organizer is a parent getting stuck in the belief of what parenting looks like. The right and wrong, the punishment for not doing a specific behavior, and what’s really hard but very important is that, instead of flexing your parenting muscle after an experience, you’re going to flex that muscle before the experience: in the preparation, in the visual aids, in the social skill training. It’s a pretty powerful shift, if you can make it.

You also help adults get organized. Do you use similar tools for special-needs children and adults?

Absolutely. I work with a lot of small companies and now also with adults with home offices, since that’s become so mainstream now. When I started working with sensory families, I started to see that a parent would have a similar challenge that a child would have. It’s not out of the ordinary at all, if you think about the genetic component that comes into play with AD/HD or anxiety disorders. There would often be more than one family member I’d support. The same strategies worked. Breaking a task down, creating a visual aid, eliminating external stimuli—those are the same key principles for adults and children. It also helps if the parent and child are learning this together.

You place a huge emphasis on visual tools to help sensory children get organized. Can this help children will all kinds of different behavioral needs?

The core tools of sensory organizing support all kinds of profiles. If you have a distracted child, the visual homework example will help keep them on task. If you have an anxious child, the visual homework will help them know what’s coming. If you have a rigid child, the homework plan will give them a map of the desired and undesired activities, giving them a mix of doing something they love versus doing something that’s harder. For the child with executive functioning challenges, a visual homework map will give them a plan. It’s a small tool that supports all of those challenges.

While learning to parent your own child, or in researching this book, have you found any theories or books particularly influential?

One of my all-time favorite books is The Explosive Child by Ross Green. He addresses similar profiles I aim to support. I loved his general philosophy that kids will do well if they can, versus if they want to. It made a lot of sense to me. When I started believing that kids will do well if they can, it made me understand why sensory organizing was so important. If I spent the time beforehand to give my son a map of what to expect, he will be successful; he has the tools. It was a life-changing book for me.

Where do you think your book fits in with the other books for helping children with special needs?

My book is about the total meeting of two worlds: the special-needs world and the organizing world. I have a lot of parents say to me, “Gosh my child doesn’t even have a diagnosis, but these tools are going to be helpful.” I’m taking special needs and softening it a little bit. It can be an intimidating world. I’m trying to give people access to everyday tools they can use to make life at home more enjoyable and more peaceful.

You often recommend that parents give their child a choice in decision-making in order for them to feel empowered. But what about children who aren’t great at communicating verbally?

I have not worked with too many non-verbal sensory kids, but I know from my own research that these kids are as intelligent as everyone else, they just don’t have the ability to verbalize. But when they’re given choices in a visual format, there are so many apps now that non-verbal kids are using on iPads to communicate. So for going to a restaurant, they can use an app with a voice-response, so they can tap on a choice. There are ways to tap into the power of choice in a very specific visual format, using technology.

In many of your examples in the book, you suggest partners divide caretaking tasks. Do you also work with single-parent families?

I work with both couples and single-parent households. Unfortunately, there’s a pretty high level of divorce in families of special-needs kids. There are pluses and minuses to both experiences. When you’re dealing with a single parent, and they’re really plugged into learning their child’s language and supporting them at home, everyone’s on board. The challenge when you’re working with a couple is that one person is plugged in and on-board and the other isn’t quite there yet. So you need to get everyone on the same page. If our partner approaches things from a different angle, it can be a strength. But if you’re on a different page about how to parent your special needs or sensory child, that can be very hard.

If you were writing a book for parents on how to stay sane, what would your top recommendations be?

The biggest advice I have is the shift in what parenting is going to look like. The idea that it’s not going to be a reactive experience anymore, it’s going to be proactive.

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Hope Reese is a writer and editor based in Louisville, Kentucky. She writes for The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, and The Paris Review. She also hosts a radio podcast for IdeaFestival. Her website is hopereese.com.

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