There is a vast difference between, “It’s okay, I get it, do what you need to and I’ll be here to support you,” and, “I’ve heard of that! Let me fix it for you.”
Megan Young is a Tutor and an experienced Integration Aide, who specialises in special needs support. Megan shares her insights about the best approach to addressing the needs of students with a disability.
What troubles me most about the world of special needs children is the attitude of those around them. Be it from a teacher, sibling, parent, friend, or really anyone, the mindset that ‘I know best’ is far too common, and by result, far too harmful. As an autist, who also has other conditions such as anxiety and depression to boot, I’ve had it done to me too often to count. From the lectures of others on ‘what my problems really are’, to subtler comments and behaviours, the people who want the best for me often make it worse. Imagine struggling in a social setting and mentioning that you have autism and you need a moment to reset because you’re on the verge of panic, only for the other person to keep you there to listen to their lengthy ideas on what really would help.
I’ve seen it in my work, too. Far too many teachers take one extreme and demand the student do exactly what everyone else does, without considering their extra needs at all, and even more take the opposite extreme of, “He can’t help it, so let him be.” What kind of message does it send to a child if they’re treated like their ways of coping are invalid? Or that they don’t need to try, because they’re broken anyway and therefore a lost cause. I can tell you from experience, both are painful. People who don’t know enough, who dismiss it all as a lost cause and let the child drift through school doing nothing and being told he can’t help it, are setting the child up for a massive heartbreak. Yes, you make him feel better about himself now, but eventually he’ll realise that he’s being treated as less than the others. He’ll act out more because he feels isolated and neglected. Worst of all, when school ends and he’s thrown into the real world, he has zero understanding of social constructs or basic academics that he needed to glean from schooling. He becomes the defective person he was always told he would be, and it takes no imagination to see how hurtful that can be.
On the other hand, pushing too hard, or deciding you have a ‘better strategy’, is a sure way to confuse and upset people of all ages. Yes, we want you to understand, but there is a vast difference between, “It’s okay, I get it, do what you need to and I’ll be here to support you,” and, “I’ve heard of that! Let me fix it for you.” One is kind and supportive and encouraging, allows us to feel welcomed and accepted and loved all at once. It shows you understand that we need something, and you’re willing to let us have it. A sensory break? Go for it, I’ll wait. Can’t make it out today? No stress, we can meet up next week. Fidget toys or phone games during conversations? Why not, I know you’re still listening. The other makes us feel defective or stupid, or just plain angry that you, who have never been in my situation, think you know how I feel and how to fix it. Let me make it clear: you don’t. I don’t care how many classes you’ve taken or people you’ve met with my ‘problem’, you do not know how it feels unless you have it too. Don’t talk like you do. We know you mean well, and honestly, I can say I appreciate the effort of certain pushy people in my life. I’m a lot better at ordering food because a friend once forced me to if I ever wanted to eat when I went out with her. I’m glad of that, but I can’t say I’m glad of how she did it (or anything else about my relationship with her, honestly – she was very much a ‘fixer’).
|"A sensory break?
Go for it, I’ll wait.
Can’t make it out today?
No stress, we can meet up next week.
Fidget toys or phone games during conversations?
Why not, I know you’re still listening."
So, back to the title, “I understand, but I don’t know.” This should be your attitude when approaching anyone with any disability or condition, especially children, who are more emotionally fragile. I promise, the best possible thing you can do for them is let them be in charge of what works and what doesn’t. Try things, sure, but he decides if he likes it and if it works. It might not work for him. You might be making it worse without even realising. And especially with adults, who have tried and tested just about everything and worked out exactly what works for them and know how to employ those strategies, let them do what works, and don’t push other ideas. Understand that they need help, and be willing to give it, but don’t assume you know exactly what help they need.