How to Help a Special Needs Child Find Independence

Marj Hatzell

toy bins
A place for everything and everything in its place
In the special needs world, there is one word I hear more often than not: independence. The long-term goal for any child and every child with special needs is independence.

Someday (hopefully, if they want to) they have to live on their own. Someday they must be able to take care of themselves. Raising your child to be as independent as possible will help to ensure this is a reachable goal.

One of the areas special needs children have difficulties in, however, is organization. Children with ADHD and autism have a NEED for it and THRIVE on it, but sometimes, due to motor planning and visual spacial issues, have great difficulty actually ACHIEVING it. Which is where we, as parents, come in. Sometimes organization is not a natural skill. It must be taught, directly. And now I have a confession to make.

I am not a naturally organized person. I have no time management skills (and I wonder where my boys get it?). I get easily overwhelmed when looking at a mess in my house that has to be cleaned up. And when I had my first child, my little routines all went to heck in a hand basket. I was frustrated and sad. I felt like a failure as a parent because my house was a wreck. And I was a stay-at-home-parent! I was supposed to have time for this! No wonder my husband had that look on his face every day when he returned home. I'd look that way, too, if I were walking in on that after a 12-hour shift.

And then I added a second child. And it got worse. And then my children were diagnosed. Yup, it was baaaad. As I lamented to a friend one day at her house, I noticed a list on her fridge. I inquired about it. And my life hasn't been the same since.

That friend gave me a talking to. She said, "You just need to get organized! It'll all fall in place after that. Having kids with special needs is no excuse!" I was offended at first but she was right. I am no different from anyone else. And anyone can get their shiz in gear and get organized. So, I followed her recommendations and slowly my life came together. Wanna know how?

Baby steps. She introduced me to Flylady. Now, before you tell me how crazy it is and that you get too many emails, the whole point of Flylady is to do it in SMALL, MANAGEABLE STEPS and to get a system in place. And how to make lists. LISTS. Who woulda thunk it? And pretty sure I had more time to play with my kids and the house was halfway decent.

Then my friend told me about Motivated Moms. This is probably the best thing I've ever done in my life. It costs a few dollars and it's worth the price to restore my sanity, I tells ya. I mean, the MM calendar reminds you to wipe your DOORKNOBS and LIGHT SWITCHES, mmkay? Tell me, do normal people remember to do that? Or cut their kids' nails? YEAH, that's what I thought. Don't knock it until you've tried it! But beware, if your kids have OCD like SOME UNNAMED KIDS, they will only cut their nails on Wednesdays for the rest of their lives. Just sayin'.

The next step for us was getting the house organized to help our kids function better. Once we got rid of clutter and had a daily schedule down, it was much easier on all of us. I made a spreadsheet with our daily schedule so my precocious and reading child of 4 could follow it himself. It reduced TONS of anxiety for him. We also purchased and labeled toy bins and toy boxes to make clean-up time a breeze. My younger, non-verbal son could even clean up with some help due to pictures of the toys on the right bins. People who came to my house thought I was crazy but it worked for us! And the kids were doing things THEMSELVES. Which is kinda the point, mmkay?

Now that I've had this down for a few years I have to say, it is much easier. The routines have become automatic. We function much better as a family. My sons even have their own schedules posted. We have a chore chart. We have a posted reward system. We still keep our brightly colored lists. And my husband teases me about my lists. But a chore list posted on the fridge with the weekly menu? Makes everyone much happier. Heck, there are even menu websites out there, like

The point of all of this is to organize better to improve functionality of your home. Your home is your sanctuary, a refuge and an escape from the rest of the world. At least, it should be. Wouldn't you like it to be relaxing? Comfortable? ORGANIZED? It isn't OCD (It's CDO, in the right order). And besides, it's better than hoarding, methinks. Improving functionality leads to less stressed, more independent functioning for your children with disabilities. And the non-disabled children, too. If it doesn't come naturally to you to pass those skills on, learn some new skills and pass those along. You can trust me on this one.

Word of warning: just because you become more organized and the home routines get much easier, do not overextend yourself with your newfound time and volunteer for abso-smurfly everything that comes past you. Learn to say NO. Not that anyone I know has a problem with that. Ahem.


image via Marj Hatzell

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