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Karen Wang
BY Karen Wang

4 Ways individuals with Special Needs Can Enjoy Life Without ‘Pretending to be Normal’

Are you fighting against disability or working with it?

“Pretending To Be Normal” is the title of a memoir by Liane Holliday Willey, and it’s a phrase that describes the experience of many adults with disabilities.  Because people without disabilities seem to have a radar for social differences, it can take considerable effort for those with disabilities to fit in.

Teaching to be Normal

Often the conscious or unconscious goal of therapists, teachers and parents is to teach a child with special needs how to behave like a person without a disability, how to “be normal.”  Have you ever stopped to wonder if that’s really desirable?  Or if the child thinks it’s desirable?  Or if it’s worthwhile for any of the parties involved?

Therapy plays a vital role in the life of a child with developmental delays.  But there are many alternatives to “pretending to be normal.”  If the pressure to conform is becoming too much, consider developing new goals based on enjoyment of life in these four areas.

1. Life Skills

Much of life is devoted to everyday routines, and most of these routines involve social interactions.  Everyday life becomes therapeutic when it is lived joyfully while:

  • preparing meals
  • practicing self-care
  • getting dressed and ready to go out
  • making a doctor’s appointment
  • interacting with a doctor
  • checking a book out of the library
  • going to the grocery store
  • making payments
  • mailing a letter at the post office

All of these activities can be broken down into simple steps and learned through repetition. Although some may consider brushing teeth or making payments an annoying necessity of life, others take pride in being able to do so mindfully.

2. Community involvement

Individuals with disabilities are at high risk for social isolation, especially if they spend several hours every week in closed therapy sessions.

My son’s speech and mannerisms have always been distinctly different, and it’s clear that he needs extra support.  But his goal has never been to become “indistinguishable from peers.”  His goal is to make valuable contributions as a distinguished citizen.  For him, the path to his goal has been daily outings in our local community, something different every day: swimming, bike riding, errands at stores, volunteering, craft fairs, holiday parades, museums, libraries, award ceremonies for art contests that he entered, visits to friends, concerts, plays, parks and playgrounds.

As a result of his community involvement, he has learned how to approach and greet people, how to ask for help, and he can speak about activities that he enjoys.

3. Personal interests

The way to distinguish oneself is to develop personal excellence in meaningful fields.  Scouting organizations offer a structured and adaptable framework for exploring interests at all ability levels, and many groups such as model train clubs, community theaters and recreation centers provide a supportive environment for specific skills.  Sometimes these interests may lead to a career, sometimes they lead to new interests and relationships.

My son has had a lifelong interest in elevators.  At first, seeking out elevators was his primary motivation to visit new places.  Gradually he became aware of other reasons to visit favorite spots, and he became interested in what each place had to offer: books and media in the library, favorite paintings in a museum, finding a birthday present for a friend at the mall.

These experiences have led him to consider how his love for elevators will fit into his work life as an adult. Will he load furniture onto freight elevators at IKEA?  Will he deliver mail to a high-rise office building?  Will he become an elevator technician?  Only time will tell!

4. Adaptability

Life is not predictable.  The problem with most types of therapy is a reliance on predictable patterns or scripts that do not exist in real life.  Instead of simulating reality in therapy, everyday life with its minute-by-minute demands is its own therapy.  Some examples of teaching flexibility and adaptation are:

  • Snow day? Go sledding and build a snowman.
  • Did you run out of your favorite cereal?  Make pancakes for breakfast instead.
  • Where are all the clean shirts? Go sort the laundry.
  • Find the overdue library book and return it today!
  • Bump into a friend in town and change your plans to spend time together.

Often there is more than one solution to a problem.  Adaptability is the life skill that opens up those possibilities.

Earlier this year, blogger Stuart Duncan tweeted,  “Instead of teaching your child to be great ‘despite’ #autism, teach them to be great ‘with’ autism. Perspective is everything.”  The same principle applies to all disabilities.

Agree or disagree? Tell us why in the comments below.

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Karen Wang

Written on December 1, 2014 by:

Karen Wang is a Friendship Circle parent. You may have seen her sneaking into the volunteer lounge for ice cream or being pushed into the cheese pit by laughing children. She is a contributing author to the anthology "My Baby Rides the Short Bus: The Unabashedly Human Experience of Raising Kids With Disabilities"

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