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

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.

What do you hear most from parents in response to your techniques?

What I hear most is “Oh my gosh, I need this book for me.” A lot of adults say that. I think when you’re able to learn this together with your child, and as an adult look at what’s hard for you in this, and what you can support in yourself, it’s going to automatically put yourself in a softer place to experience that with your child. That’s the power of doing this as a family.

With the way people are using technology, and devices, in their lives today, do you see new challenges for parents of sensory children?

For kids that are prone to distraction, technology plays into that. You have to be really mindful about how you use it. Kids who aren’t great with handwriting may be using an iPad in school to help with that, which is a huge support. The minus is that they could have 15 windows open at once and be flipping back and forth between things, which isn’t supporting their sustained mental focus.

Many parents turn to these devices as a way to help keep their children occupied during difficult times, like mealtimes or on the plane. But is there a danger on relying on devices this way?

I think it can be used if you can build it into a bigger map. If flying is difficult for your child, you want to be mindful of setting up a visual schedule for them and building in rewards for when they get through something difficult. You might bring games or coloring, or other things that would distract them or reward them. You want to build their ability to be competent getting through challenges. The way to get them to do that is by creating a plan.

What has your experience with your child taught you about yourself?

I am as rigid, anxious and distracted as my own child, but in completely different ways. When I was able to see that part of myself, it made the journey of learning his language much more joyful. We were on the same page because I was learning how to see the world in a different way. It ended up being a great thing.


This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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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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