Are You Babying Your Special Needs Child?

October 6th, 2015

By Lisa Ackerman
August 2009

We all have hopes dreams for our children. We may hope they’ll inherit Dad’s blue eyes or Mom’s sense of humor. We wonder what they’ll be when they grow up. But no parent plans to have a special-needs child. After a diagnosis, in the face of fear, sadness, worry, and love, it’s easy for parents to “baby” that child. It’s certainly tempting, especially if developing new skills means tantrums increase or daily tasks are done much more slowly. Yet moving our children toward as much independence as their capabilities allow is one of the most important tasks special-needs parents can undertake.

It’s easy for parents of children with autism to fall into routines along with our children; sometimes that can allow delays associated with a child’s disability to persist. Examples include:

  • Using a baby bottle well beyond the age of two.

  • Speaking to a special-needs child in a 'baby voice' instead of a natural voice well beyond toddlerhood.

  • Pacifiers used beyond the age of 2 or 3.

  • Excluding feeding or allergy issues, allowing the child to choose baby foods beyond a developmentally appropriate age.

  • Allowing the child to limit his/her diet to a few preferred foods.

  • Not requiring the child to communicate at a level he/she is capable of before granting requests. (For example, a child who is capable of two- and three-word requests have little incentive to use them if requests are granted when the child uses gestures, or if the parent anticipates the needs before communication is attempted.)

  • Micro-managing the child's toys because a missing toy results in a major tantrum.

  • Allowing the child to monopolize the television or computer without developing healthy sharing habits.

  • Allowing the child to sleep with parents instead of in his/her own room and bed./p>

  • Dressing the child beyond age four.

  • Interfering with therapy time (i.e., staying in the room or interrupting professionals).

  • Allowing the special needs child to dictate your family life.

  • Requiring siblings to perform chores without requiring contributions from you special-needs child.

  • Using the diagnosis as an excuse for all bad behaviors.

  • Fill in your favorite issue here…

Challenges can be complex, and behaviors can be exceedingly difficult to manage or change. But ask yourself: “How will I know if this child is not capable if I don’t try?” Here are some suggestions and step-by-step instructions on identifying common behavior-based problems.

Setting goals

  • Keep a daily daily journal and look for routines and habits that should be changed. Identify them accurately and honestly in a list. Observations of friends, therapists, and family members can be very helpful.
  • Review the list with your spouse or partner and prioritize which areas to address first. (Yes, this could be the hardest step!)
  • Review and set goals with your service providers. Use their experience to help you develop a plan. It may be hard to ask for advice from someone who does not have a child and does not live with yours. Be open to their feedback and to utilizing suggestions that can help your child move forward.
  • Address self-help issues as early as possible. A behaviorist or occupational therapist can introduce a skill and help transition the newly acquired skill to your home.

Reinforcing new behaviors

Proper reinforcement consistency, and strong will from both partners are important. Strategies to reinforce desired behaviors include:

  • Reward immediately with a favorite toy, food, TV program, or play activity.

  • Avoid overuse - evaluate reinforcers periodically to make sure the child still finds them rewarding.

  • Frequent rewards may be necessary at first, but can be faded as mastery increases.

  • Educate family, friends, and therapists about consistently reinforcing the child.

Saying goodbye to old patterns and developing new skills takes work - often much more work than teaching typical peers. Remember, though, that your baby isn't a baby for long. Better skills equals greater independence, for child and parents.


Related article:

Getting Picky Kids to Eat!

Book sources:

Autism Journey Blueprints
Parent Mentor Program
Find a TACA Chapter near you
Email or Phone

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