How to foster self-reliance in children with disabilities

A little girl wearing a navy top and a purple skirt is reaching up and pointing at one painting in a series of paintings on a yellow wall.

The work of bringing up independent, happy, self-reliant adults starts early.

As I discussed in my earlier post, it is easy and all too common for children with disabilities to be treated as children throughout their lives.

It’s bad enough when children are treated as infants and teenagers are treated as children – but when fully grown adults are relegated to the sidelines in their own lives, the situation is unacceptable.

How do we ensure that children with disability are taken seriously as adults? How do we equip them with the skills and the experiences which will help them make sensible choices and wise decisions?

We start when they are very young. And we start with a clear understanding of what self-determination actually is.

It is a combination of skills, knowledge and beliefs that allow a person to set goals and manage their own lives without the need for outside control. This sounds ambitious and at one level, it is. But it is also an elastic definition which can be tailored to specific situations, and the foundational experiences each individual requires to build these skills are the same.

There is nothing magical about the process. It begins with understanding how the brain develops and matures. Children need to practice the skills they will require as adults so their brains have time to make the connections between cause and effect, between actions and consequences.

These ‘executive functions’ enable the mature adult to delay gratification, hold back on inappropriate responses to stress and disappointment and control themselves when faced with temptations.

Autonomy and selfhood

It develops gradually and, hard as it is for many parents, it happens through respecting children’s autonomy and selfhood. And that means giving them choices. As parents and teachers, we make choices for children all the time. We can share the experience with them, gradually giving them more responsibility so that more and more of their daily life choices are in their own control.

Start with meal time – so often a pitched battleground in families. When you offer choices, many tensions disappear. ‘Would you like a paratha for breakfast or do you prefer dalia? Lassi or milk? Do you want your fruit cut or whole?’ Bath time: ‘Would you like to watch your cartoon before your bath or after?’ Play time: ‘Do you want to get your homework out of the way first or play with your friends?’

Self-aware people don’t get pushed around, taken for granted or made to do things they don’t want to do – all essential qualities in the adult work of building friendships, partnerships and marriages.

Obviously, you give them only options you are comfortable with (no point offering a pizza for breakfast or taking a bath next week). Each choice a child makes comes with consequences. Discussing them (so surprising sometimes!) leads to reflection and decision-making – even higher order skills.

For example: the alarm rings and most parents assume responsibility for getting the child up. If you want your child to eventually be responsible for getting himself up, the sooner you remove yourself from the equation the better. ‘Would you like to get up now or do you want ten minutes more to snooze?’ But then the child snoozes and snoozes and ends up missing the bus.

Don’t fall into the trap of making it all better by leaping into the car and driving your kid to school or, even worse, allowing him to stay home and then writing a fake letter the next day claiming that the child was ill. There is nothing wrong with allowing him to live with the consequences of his own choice. Indeed, protecting children from their own bad decisions is the worst way to equip them for adulthood.

On the positive side, making bad decisions offers parents a chance to help children think and plan better for the next time; reminding them about a bad outcome when they are tempted to repeat a mistake will be much more effective if they actually had to experience an uncomfortable situation. This is particularly true for children with intellectual impairment who have difficulties with abstract thought and imagination. One unpleasant consequence actually experienced teaches a lesson that all the lectures in the world cannot achieve.

A healthy sexuality

Why is all this important in developing a healthy, positive sexuality? Sexuality is not something separate from the rest of one’s self. It’s part of one’s whole personality and develops in stages, just as the individual does. As children grow and acquire a sense of themselves as individuals with likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses; as people separate from their parents and individuals in their own right, they become stronger and more confident. As they experience the freedom and the responsibility of making choices and living with their decisions, they become aware of themselves as people with both rights and duties.

It is harder to fool such people; more difficult to take advantage of them. Self-aware people believe in themselves. They know they are worth something. They are able to develop strong, positive relationships precisely because they know what they like and what they don’t and they know that other people have likes and dislikes too. They don’t get pushed around, taken for granted or made to do things they don’t want to do – all essential qualities in the adult work of building friendships, partnerships and marriages.

We are always alive, always growing. Life begins at the very beginning. Want to bring up happy, independent, self-reliant adults? Start when they are babies.

Featured image credit: Alia Sinha