Understanding Childhood Disabilities

Stimulating Development in a Disabled Child

No two children with disabilities -- even those who have the same type of disability -- are alike. Nor are their needs alike. In this section, we will explore different disabilities and how stimulating a disabled child can aid in the developmental process.

The Role of Parents

Provide love and support. The primary need of a child with a disability is the same as that of all children: the love and support of his parents. Sometimes parents become so absorbed in the need to stimulate their child and to compensate for his disability, they forget the most important task is to love him and take pleasure in him as a human being. When a child sees that his parents enjoy being with him, his sense of self-worth is nourished. That growing sense of self-worth is an important measure of a parent's success in raising a child with a disability.

Foster independence. If you are the parent of a child with a disability, your goals are to foster independence and to help your child develop a sense of self-worth and personal fulfillment. Through therapy and play, you are striving to help your child deal with his disability while realizing his full potential. How much independence your child achieves depends, to a great degree, not only on your child's disability but on how much you let your child do for himself at each stage.

All children reach plateaus in their development -- times when they seem to stop moving forward, or when they may even take a step back. This can be a particularly difficult time for parents of children with disabilities, who have to learn to measure the progress of their youngsters in inches rather than yards.

Focus on short-term goals. When your child reaches a plateau, it is helpful to look back and focus on how far he has progressed. This may also be a good time to focus on short-term rather than long-term goals -- finger-feeding, getting dressed, repeating the first intelligible word or phrase, finally mastering toilet training. When parents focus all their energy on a single, short-term goal, a child with a disability may begin to move forward again. By stopping to observe how the child copes with such challenges, how he adapts to new and greater demands, parents can help themselves to develop realistic expectations for their child.

Children progress best when their parents function as advocates for them, choosing the most appropriate educational settings, setting reasonable goals, and providing a warm and nurturing environment. Parents should view themselves as partners with professionals in planning the care of their children with disabilities.

Stimulating Developmental Potential

From the moment they are born, children begin learning about the world around them. They learn through their movements and through their senses of taste, touch, smell, sight, and hearing. When one or more of these senses are impaired, the child's view of the world is altered, and her ability to learn from it changes. Yet with advances in medicine, technology, and our understanding of how babies grow and learn, we can frequently expect far greater physical and mental development from children with disabilities than was possible even a decade ago. How much development depends upon the extent of the disability, how soon it is correctly diagnosed, and how quickly the child is placed in an appropriately stimulating environment. Children with mental disabilities, for instance, need frequent and consistent stimulation because they often have difficulty focusing their attention and remembering. They may also have perceptual difficulties that make it hard for them to understand what is happening around them and why it is happening.

Focus on the impaired sense. In many cases, a child's abilities can be improved by stimulating the impaired sense. Children with muscular dystrophy, Down syndrome, and cerebral palsy often can benefit from a physical therapy program that exercises all their muscles. Exercising the legs and feet of children with severe cases of spina bifida prepares them for walking with braces and crutches. Children with hearing impairments can learn to use their residual hearing with the help of high-power hearing aids and auditory training that increases and expands their listening ability. Children with severe visual impairments can sharpen their other senses to help compensate for their lack of sight while they learn about their world. Children with Down syndrome and cerebral palsy may also benefit from vision, speech, and occupational therapies.

Work with a therapist. Stimulation programs geared for children from birth to age three have demonstrated that even children with severe disabilities can learn, grow, and participate in the world around them. Parents can lead many of the exercises in such programs themselves, but they almost always benefit from the supervision of a trained therapist. Your local health department, public school, or state department of disabilities may have an appropriate infant stimulation program or may be able to recommend a trained therapist who can visit your home regularly to help your child and teach you appropriate exercises and play. University teaching hospitals and private agencies that serve children with disabilities may also be good sources of information.

Use play to explore. Play is an important way of learning for all children. Children with disabilities who can't move around to explore on their own can still learn about their neighborhoods through trips with the family. Within the home, children can be carried or guided from room to room to touch, feel, see, smell, or hear various objects. Children with impaired vision can use their hands, faces, feet, and other parts of their bodies to explore and learn. Children with impaired hearing need constant language stimulation and, like all children, need to hear explanations for what is happening around them. Pictures in books and magazines are another way of exposing children with disabilities to places, people, animals, and ways of life outside their immediate experience.

Toys provide another means of understanding our bodies and the world. Children with disabilities may have trouble playing with conventional toys, but parents can often adapt them to their child's needs or create appropriate play objects. Many communities have toy libraries (known as Lekoteks) that serve as resources by providing specially designed or selected toys for children with disabilities.

However much a parent tries to provide for their disabled child, there is only so much they can do on their own. On the next page, we'll look at what options are available to provide the other necessities for disabled children.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.