As a foster carer, you’ll come across children with many kinds of special needs, ranging from learning disabilities to cognitive and physical ones. Many diagnoses require specific attention, but a few principles of care form a good foundation to help meet the unique challenges of caring for young people with special needs.
If you’re considering fostering a child with special needs, or if a child in your care has recently been diagnosed with special needs, here’s how you can support their development:
1. Build a support network.
Children with special needs may require extra assistance, such as behavioural or speech therapy, so access all the extra support available to you.
It’s also important to build your own support network to help you through the challenges of fostering your special needs child. Foster carer Grace has had her foster son for 10 years. He has autism, global development delay and epilepsy, and she says the support of her family and social workers has been wonderful.
“When you find out you have a child coming to you with certain needs,” she advises, “read up about them as much as you can. Books, internet, and there are forums online with good communities too.”
You can also get involved with social events offered by your fostering agency. At Compass Fostering, we provide group training for carers looking after children with other complex needs, and we also host Coffee Mornings and days out for foster carers.
2. Let your child be a kid.
It’s important that children with special needs still get kid things to do, like chores and schoolwork. Be patient, allow more time to complete tasks and make chores predictable and achievable. Be there to support them until they can complete tasks on their own. Visual cues, such as a daily schedule with pictures, can also help your child understand what’s expected.
Don’t forget that underneath any disability there’s still a child, says Grace. “I see a child first – one who happens to have special needs. But beyond that, there’s a child who needs to be treated the same as any other: with the same respect, the same boundaries, the same love and commitment.”
3. Let your child interact with others in a comfortable environment.
Some children with special needs such as autism may struggle with social situations. Whatever obstacle your child faces, work with them to enjoy social interactions in a way that feels safe for them. If they’re overwhelmed by loud noises, keep activities calm and give them a safe space to withdraw to. The goal is to meet them at their emotional age (not their chronological age) and support them to enjoy social situations and learn valuable social skills.
Depending on the child’s needs, you may be able to enrol them in school or sporting activities, or involve them in social activities run by your fostering agency. These events are often a good mix of parents, birth children and foster kids, and can provide a more comfortable environment for some children.
4. Create a routine and use positive reinforcement.
All children need routines, regardless of age or ability. Establish a routine so the child knows what’s expected of them, and use positive reinforcement by rewarding good behaviour rather than punishing bad.
It may be harder for children with special needs to understand or comply with rules, so praise them freely for their accomplishments. When they get something wrong, be patient and try to use a positive correction, such as good try, give it another go!
5. Give your child some control.
Allow your child to make choices, such as what to wear – giving them options to pick from offers some control without being overwhelming.
Try to let them solve problems on their own while being on-hand to support – but try not to step in too early. It can be tempting to help them, but it’s also valuable to support your child in figuring out how to do things on their own. This will help them build confidence in their own abilities and learn how to solve problems.
Pre-empt certain activities that your child struggles with and let them know you’re there to support them.
6. Break things up into small steps.
It can be overwhelming for children with special needs to tackle a list of tasks. Turning everything into smaller, achievable steps will help them do things on their own.
Children who have experienced developmental trauma or attachment difficulties can have a hard time moving from one activity to another. Use a timer or countdown to help their brains make the shift – ten more minutes, five more minutes – or let them know it’s time to change from one task to another with clear signals, such as singing a song or using a visual cue.
Whatever happens, says Grace, be patient. “Don’t expect a miracle to happen overnight. Be prepared to work through any issues, but give it time. If a child presents a few different issues, pick what you want to work with first and take it from there.”
Fostering a child with special needs can be challenging, but is also extremely rewarding. At Compass, we give our carers all the training and resources to support every child’s needs. If you’d like to learn more about fostering with us, please get in touch.