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Preparing your special needs child (and yourself) for living away from home

As the parent of a special-needs child who is now a young man of 20, and a neurotypical daughter who is now 23, I spent far too much time trying to understand our son’s special needs and not enough time appreciating what he has in common with his sister.  While I wish I had come to this understanding years ago, I’m glad I’m realizing it now for our son–and for his mother and me.

Every special needs child who outlives his or her parents will become an adult and at some point, in all likelihood, live outside the house s/he grew up in.  Until our special-needs young adult is safely and comfortably living outside the family home, our parental responsibilities are not done.

I realized recently that our son, just like his sister and every other child (myself included when I was younger), behaves differently when they are not at home.

People they encounter outside the home are different.  Many are kind, understanding, and tolerant.  It’s as much an adventure for our son to be out in the world as it was for our daughter when she ventured out.

Initially, when our daughter was showing urges to leave the nest, I didn’t think she was ready to live on her own (albeit with friends).  I could see all the possible mistakes she’d make because “she wasn’t ready.”  But I realized two important things.  First, she wasn’t me.  She didn’t need to be ready to leave the way I was ready to leave when my time came.  Second, being ready to leave the nest is not about the ability to avoid mistakes.  It’s about the ability to learn from mistakes: their mistakes.  By the time our children are ready to leave the nest, let’s hope they have already begun to learn from our mistakes as their parents, as well as the mistakes they make on their own.

So, when is it time for our special needs child to leave the nest?  There’s no single answer to this question.  It differs for each child because each is unique in their particular needs, and they’re unique as individuals.  We can’t overlook this uniqueness.

Our special needs children deserve the opportunity to experience a world outside the nurturing and protective world we’ve provided for them.  This outside world needs to be safe, supportive and nurturing – we should not expect less.  It can also include a home where they become the individual they develop into when they are not in the world of their parents or caretakers at home.

As we prepare for our son to “be in the world”, we’re not looking to recreate the home of his youth.  We’re looking for a place where he can be more than he’s been at home – whatever the “more” is for him.  And, this begins by accepting from the start that we, as his parents, need to let him go into his world to become who he can be based on his challenges and strengths.  Just as his neurotypical sister is doing with her life.

By Michael LoBue, Board member for Living Unlimited and Clearwater Ranch Community