Mom of Special Needs 5 y.o. Seeks Free-Range Ideas (& Help for Own Anxiety)

Readers — Here’s a mom in a tough spot, looking for some great ideas. When we give our kids responsibility and independence, the results are usually wonderful. But I’m not sure of exactly how to do that in this situation (young child, special needs, in hiding), other than to start out by having her girl help preparing food — a fun and immediately rewarding way to do something “grown up.” Please pitch in with more suggestions! – L

Dear Free-Range Kids: Here’s our situation. I’m a single mom of a special needs 5 year old. She requires constant supervision because she has no fear (of water, of parking lots, of fast moving vehicles/streets, of strangers, of large animals, etc.). She can’t walk to school because it’s on a very busy 65 mph highway. She can’t ride the bus because we live within five miles of the school. There is no public transportation in our area. We also live in hiding because of my abusive ex-husband. The kinds of things I’d like to know are:

For our situation….

* How does an anxious parent change their mindset?

* What are some practical tips for a parent to encourage childhood independence (besides riding the school bus or walking to school)?

* At what age might it appropriate to encourage independence in a child with Aspergers/ADHD/OCD/ODD/sensory perception issues?

* Etc.

Lenore here: First off, it is natural to be anxious, so please don’t beat yourself up about that. The good news is that after you let your daughter do ONE THING on her own — even just go outside to get the mail, or walk next door to play — and she comes home proud and excited, your anxiety level WILL go down. I have seen it time and again. Please let us know what you try and how it goes. Truly we are wishing you good luck!- L 

How can you give a kid with sensory issues more freedom and independence?

How can you give a kindergartener with sensory issues more freedom and independence?

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29 Responses to Mom of Special Needs 5 y.o. Seeks Free-Range Ideas (& Help for Own Anxiety)

  1. Kristan December 15, 2014 at 3:16 pm #

    I agree with Lenore, have her help you cook. Whatever steps in a recipe she can do, let her. Mix things with your hands (great sensory task). Also, giving her responsibilities (pull the blankets up on her bed, put clothes in the drawer, feed the cat, whatever). As a pediatric OT, I know just how impulsive some of these kids can be so, start with baby steps! Lots of things can help get her sensory needs met (pushing the laundry around, helping push the cart, carrying groceries in),help you with the daily chores, and give her a sense of control. Good luck to you!

  2. Powers December 15, 2014 at 3:51 pm #

    I gotta be honest… if they’re in hiding from Dad, there’s presumably a real, not imagined, chance of an abduction here. That means the usual free-range advice could actually be dangerous, IMO.

    As for the bus, it seems like the district ought to provide transportation for special-needs students who need it, whether they’re within 5 miles or not. (And a five-mile busing limit is the farthest I’ve ever heard of by a significant margin!)

  3. Tern December 15, 2014 at 4:21 pm #

    A lot of this depends on your child’s particular strengths and weaknesses. My son, who has aspergers and ADD, could not cross the street safely (he would NOT look for cars) until he was around 10 years old. Once he could, he started riding his bike two miles to his classes at the autism center. When they objected, I told them that his primary problems were relating to people. I trusted him much more out biking alone than in a crowd of kids! After much talk about the importance of fostering independence, they finally simply asked me to write a note saying he was allowed to go alone. It’s gone very well.

  4. Emily December 15, 2014 at 4:33 pm #

    I think Kristan is on the right track. Free range doesn’t eschew issues of real safety and it doesn’t presume that we all deal with the same circumstances. I have a special needs and it’s taking baby steps. She is working on what she needs to do to earn going to the park herself next summer. For us, that involves showing us she can cross the street, who to ask if there’s a problem and what to look for as far as problems. She has to work on which other kids to trust and which ones are trouble.
    When have been working hard on responsibility at home. Hopefully the mom who wrote in won’t always have to hide and when she can loosen the reigns that are necessary now and find a clever, resourceful child.

  5. Nicole December 15, 2014 at 4:39 pm #

    If she has an IEP, you should be able to get door to door busing.

    With *any* parenting philosophy you have to adapt it to your needs. With a special needs child and a real abduction risk (abusive father) you’ll have different options. Maybe being “free range” is having her complete a chore on her own, or string popcorn with a real needle. Maybe it’s playing with a friend in the other room while you watch a movie. When you go grocery shopping, maybe giving her a list (it can be pictures) and having her shop for the items while you are nearby but not interfering. Or having her pay for a purchase on her own.

  6. lollipoplover December 15, 2014 at 4:39 pm #

    “She can’t walk to school because it’s on a very busy 65 mph highway. She can’t ride the bus because we live within five miles of the school.”

    Have you tried walking with her? Riding on the back of a tandem bike? I did it with my youngest until half way through kindergarten because unlike my older children, she also had impulse issues (we call it “Distracted by Shiny Objects Syndrome”) and wasn’t reliable to do it on her own safely. So we did it over and over with her until it was a habit and she gained so much confidence and learn better impulse control with practice. It’s not so much an age issue, every child learns at different speeds and with different methods.

    Schools have to provide safe routes to schools if they taking bus transportation away, but from your description (5 miles and on a highway)it doesn’t sound ideal for walking or biking and I’m surprised that bus transportation isn’t offered, especially given the special need for it.

  7. Jenny Islander December 15, 2014 at 4:43 pm #

    At age 5, most non-special-needs children don’t have chores (except “chores” that help a child feel more needed and capable even though the parent has to come along behind and redo it). However, in your case, I think chores are the way to go. Keep them simple and short, don’t redo while she’s watching, and rotate them now and again. Some possibilities:

    *Dry dishes while you wash
    *Clean lint trap (Safety tip: Do this every time you use the dryer. It’s amazing how many people don’t!)
    *Count items while you write shopping list
    *Flip down covers while you air bedroom
    *Fluff pillows
    *Match socks while you fold towels

  8. Ravana December 15, 2014 at 5:00 pm #

    Chores:
    Start small and work your way up. Have her make her own bed, help wash dishes, help with vacuuming etc. Build up to cleaning her whole room, cooking a meal on her own etc.

    Teach her about money and let her handle her own:
    Get her three (or four) banks. One for spending immediately, one for saving short term, one for saving long term (the fourth is for donating to charity if you wish). Talk with her about what percentage of her income she believes should go into each and what short term is as compared to long term. Then follow through whenever money falls into her hands. Pay the banks with her in the beginning and then let her take over the job when the habit is set.

  9. kate December 15, 2014 at 5:14 pm #

    These are all good suggestions. If you feel that she is safe in the house by herself, let her stay inside while you get the mail or get something out of the car. Start slowly. Do not try to implement all at once, but pick one of the previous activities to work on. Try to set up situations where you are close by, but not right next to her directing things. You’ll both feel better when she can accomplish even the simplest tasks on her own. I think we all would be anxious if we were hiding from an abusive ex. Good luck

  10. Elin December 15, 2014 at 5:15 pm #

    I agree that there is a real abduction risk here and outdoor free range is not really realistic given the situation but I would give her a lot of freedom and support to explore and make her own decisions indoors. Let her have things and do not control too much even if her attention span and decision making is not as good as other children her age, she has got to learn at some point, right? Encourage good decision making but do not focus on bad things. Let her take care of what she can in particular with things relating to her own body, shower, pick out clothes and so on.

  11. Warren December 15, 2014 at 5:30 pm #

    My first thought was get your child a dog. German Shep. female, as a puppy. They will grow together, the dog will be ever so loyal, and ever so protective of your child. Intelligent dogs such as these are very perceptive, and will adjust themselves to meet your child’s needs. Dogs also foster responsibility and independance. So if you can, they are great for companionship, growth, and can actually teach your child limits, and also when to come out of their box.

  12. Warren December 15, 2014 at 5:32 pm #

    I should have explained more. Even at 5, they can be responsible for feeding and watering a dog. They may need to be reminded, but the chore itself is an enjoyable activity.

  13. Papilio December 15, 2014 at 6:28 pm #

    “school [i]s on a very busy 65 mph highway. She can’t ride the bus because we live within five miles of the school. There is no public transportation in our area.”

    Sounds like a huge planning failure right there. Who, regardless of age, would want to walk or bike anywhere near a very busy 65 mph highway? How are those kids (special needs or not) supposed to get there without forcing their parents to drive them?

  14. Emily December 16, 2014 at 7:54 am #

    I agree with Warren on getting the child a dog (provided that you can care for said dog), but can I make another suggestion? German Shepherds are good, but a Golden Retriever (male or female; doesn’t matter) is another good option. They’re very intelligent, very easy to train (mine knows all the basic commands and a few tricks, plus he rings a bell to go outside instead of barking), they rarely need to be bathed (mine licks himself clean like a cat), and they’re also very sweet and personable dogs. The only drawback is that they shed a fair bit, so you need a good vacuum cleaner…..that, and they need a fair bit of exercise (walks, playing fetch, etc.), but if you want to encourage your child to be active, that’s a good thing. That way, instead of saying, “Get off the Playstation and get some exercise,” you can say, “Get off the Playstation; the dog needs exercise.”

  15. Emily December 16, 2014 at 8:02 am #

    Another thing I forgot to mention on the “dog” front: While a lot of parents might be leery about allowing their school-aged child to walk around the neighbourhood alone, a large dog might actually make it safer. In the unlikely event of a predator trying to grab the child, the dog could bark loudly and get someone’s attention, growl at the attacker, or even defend the child physically if necessary. Even if the dog is too docile to do such a thing, the presence of a large dog might deter someone from approaching a child who’s out without an adult. I know what I said is mostly in the context of “stranger abductions,” but it could also work in an “abusive ex” situation, because the ex would be a stranger to the dog.

  16. Thea December 16, 2014 at 8:39 am #

    Everyone has already mentioned some great ideas. Chores are great. I was folding clothes at 3, so start them early. Helping in the kitchen. I second the idea of a dog but would vote for the german shepherd. Not as easy to train but far more protective than most dogs. Best of luck.

    I would suggest picking a big project that you can break in to very small steps over a period of time. Your child can complete each step, check it off, get that sense of independence and success while also teaching delayed gratification.

  17. lollipoplover December 16, 2014 at 8:57 am #

    Can I take my answer back?
    Trust your gut. Domestic violence is no joke. You’ve obviously been through a lot if you are leaving an abusive situation so please give yourself plenty of time and flexibility to allow her freedoms you both feel comfortable with. Give yourself a break (but I would call the school for bus service)and consider the very good suggestion give already by Warren and Emily: adopt a pet. We rescued 3 dogs in the past 3 years (among other critters) and it’s the best *thing* we’ve ever done for our children.
    Empathy, responsibility, true friendship, love, and yes, freedom to walk the dog (no better protection than a loyal family pet) are amazing lessons you can teach your daughter when you adopt a pet. There’s so many shelter pets to choose from.
    We are fond of our bird dogs (GSP mixes) who are equal part exercise fanatic and coach potato. They create endless ways to tire the kids out both in the house (tug-o-war, tricks) and outdoors for walks (I highly recommend the gentle leader harness for big dogs and kids- they can easily control any size dog.) Our big goofball dogs are the first ones to greet the kids when they come home from school and then play a few rounds of frisbee in the yard before doing homework.
    Get her a dog!
    I like big Mutts and I cannot lie.

  18. Ceridwen December 16, 2014 at 9:14 am #

    My son is autistic. He’s been putting his own laundry away for years now. The drawers get messy, so I have to go in and troubleshoot after a while, but it’s something he can do on his own. I also either buy the microwavable dinners, and fix things ahead, like pasta and such, so he’s in control of what he eats, and when. Making a tortilla pizza is easy – some spooned-on spaghetti sauce, sprinkled cheese, and pepperonis if she likes them, microwave for half a minute to a minute, and use the pizza cutter or one of those plastic knives to cut it, if she even wants to cut it. We have a small dog that the son lets in and out.

    I don’t let him walk in parking lots or on the street alone, because he doesn’t pay attention. He likes to push the shopping cart at the store. He chooses which shirt he wants us to buy. We give him simple choices that we clearly state – which do you want, the red or the blue? – sort of thing.

    He isn’t high-functioning, but we do try to give him say in his life, as much as possible. Model the behavior until you’re sure the child understands, supervise for a time, then let her do on her own. And, along with others, I’m surprised that the school doesn’t provide transportation for a special needs child. I’d advise looking into it and see if the school’s giving you a run-around there. There are groups, such as the Autism Society, that can help with local laws and problems with people complying with them, and can also offer suggestions on how to teach your child as much independence as is possible. There may even be a parent support group with people who have gone through this already, who can offer more suggestions.

  19. kate December 16, 2014 at 10:09 am #

    Getting a dog is a great idea. There are plenty of service dogs groups for all kinds of disabilities. Try http://4pawsforability.org/autism-assistance-dog/ I am sure they can help you find the perfect dog for your family.

  20. Warren December 16, 2014 at 10:14 am #

    My only other suggestion on the dog thing. Although you may be tempted to get an adult dog that is already trained, I would still suggest a puppy.
    Because your child is so young, a puppy will give her practise taking care of it, before it is full grown and a lot stronger. Also, there is a great deal to be said for the bond created by your child being responsible for the puppy’s upbringing.
    We get rescue dogs these days, because the kids are all grown, and we have the experience to deal with any issue the adult dog may have.

  21. julie December 16, 2014 at 12:57 pm #

    Not sure if this will help you. I just feel it might. CAMPING AND HIKING. Now if she is a wanderer you will definitely need to sleep blocking the door of the tent. You should notify the rangers of your situation. That way they will keep their eyes open too. Little things like collecting firewood so you can make a fire and cook helped my son in so many ways. Filling water jugs and pulling them in a wagon back to camp. Of course I started small with things like “go get me that stick over there. Ok now put it by the fire pit. Slowly increasing the distance from time to time. We always made sure to reinforce a job well done. While cooking we would say things like wow your wood sure is burning good. Holy cow your wood made the best hot dogs. I sure am glad you brought us wood to stay warm. You might have to spend a lot of time bidding in the bushes like a ninja. Also the quiet of the woods always seemed to cut my son’s issues in half. I guess getting water on his face from throwing rocks in a creek was ok to him when a drop during an bath was a reason for a half hour melt down.

  22. CrazyCatLady December 16, 2014 at 2:49 pm #

    How about teaching her where certain things are at the grocery store, then letting her go get the items while you stand at the end of the row? Let her get her regular box of cereal or the milk to go with it. As she gets better at this, you could even let her pay for “her” things while you do your cart right behind her. Bagging the groceries is also something she can do.

    If you can afford it, swimming lessons sound essential. Along with constant reinforcement of only swimming/wading where there is a life guard.

    With 4th or 5th what others have said. If she has an IEP she should have the option of a short bus coming to your door. My son, 7th grade, is mostly homeschooled but takes a daily writing class at the school for his IEP. I was told that we could have a bus come pick him up and drop him off if needed. For one class. (We don’t because it would take up too much of our day.) I would see if you can build it into social skills – that she can learn to do some of this stuff independently.

    Other things that OT told me for my son: Sweeping, vacuuming, carrying in groceries, shoveling snow, carrying laundry baskets….things that encourage large gross motor skills.

    Also…visit the library, let her get her own card, and fasten it to her school back pack so that she is the one in control of it. If they have the “read to a dog”, let her do it, even if it is books like “A Boy, a Dog and a Frog.” (No words.) Stay around the corner while she reads so that she has the appearance of being alone, (to her) but you can stop her from going out the door alone if needed. If needed due to your situation….get a card at a library in another town so that you can avoid your ex if you think you might see him at the library.

    As she develops skills, see if you can friend a person with a child a couple of years younger. Your daughter can “teach” her new skills to the younger child. Be it sweeping, how to write a few letters…what ever. She will get a kick out of being the “big kid.” Keep these times as short as needed so that everyone still has fun.

  23. ali December 16, 2014 at 4:09 pm #

    rather than start with full on independence, work up to it. what chores can she take responsibility for? eg on bin night my boys (6 and 8) empty all the inside bins. they also have a list of jobs they have to do each morning….make bed, pack bag, get dressed, brush teeth, sunscreen (we live in Australia). they may not be much but they know they have to do them Mon-Fri

  24. Margot December 17, 2014 at 3:31 am #

    How about roping in some older kids. I remember at about 15, going for a drive with my older sister who had just got her licence. I wasn’t doing the driving, but I still felt very grown up, as THERE WERE NO ACTUAL ADULTS PRESENT!
    Can you find an older child or children in your street who are willing to help out, even for some pocket money? Perhaps they might be willing to walk to school with her and hold her hand near the road. Or maybe walk down to the corner shop with her in exchange for buying an ice-cream for themselves as well. It’s a whole different experience to doing it with a parent.

  25. Rebekah December 17, 2014 at 7:28 am #

    This is my first time pay a visit at here
    and i am truly pleassant to read all at single place.

  26. Anonymous December 18, 2014 at 6:59 am #

    Maybe a sport like ice skating or roller skating etc could be an option? Now I am bias toward those sports because I was a really nervous kid and ice skating helped me to develop resilience that I for whatever reason hadn’t learnt elsewhere. I think those types of sports specifically promote this. First, they involve a skill that can initially seem really hard, so there’s a pay-off when you master it even at a basic level. They also tend to involve a bit of pain and the need to go on despite the risk of pain, and to get up and keep going when you’ve fallen over. This learning experience can all happen while the parent is supervising (in an ice/roller rink, or at the park), which is great if there is a risk of abduction or the child wandering off.

    Of course, this will depend on your budget and what her sensory issues are, plus make sure she wears appropriate protective gear.

  27. SOA December 19, 2014 at 8:35 am #

    I would think you can get the special needs bus right at your house. I know our school offers that. We walk together since we live close but that would be something I could use if I wanted to.

    I have a 7 year old son with ASD and anxiety. I have learned that he cannot do everything his typical twin brother can. He just can’t and that is okay. Free range is about giving them what freedoms they can handle and doing so little by little. Sometimes I gave him too much and had to scale back when he handled it badly. He was not ready.

    You just need to follow your instincts. I let him play outside alone. He is high func enough to know to stay in the yard. I do have to check on him every 5 minutes or so in case he runs off so I could find him quickly. I just try to let him do some things alone. Next school year we are going to attempt letting him walk halfway home from school alone and if that goes well the next year it will be all the way home from school alone with his brother.

    So just give little chances to be independent and see how she handles it. If she does good, give her more.

  28. Sigh December 19, 2014 at 3:52 pm #

    Umm… know your kid as always. But I do remember reading something that suggested for certain special needs (mostly impulse and social control issues), children are 2/3rds of their actual age. Could be a place to start? You could always adjust from there, as required.

    Another option is to have her developmental age asessed, which wikl tell you how old she is in terms of function, rather than what it says on the calendar.

  29. Betsy in Michigan December 23, 2014 at 4:20 pm #

    Good ideas here. And assurances that things will get better. Our ADHD Aspie 8 year old has come SO far in terms of impulsivity (I’m still not quite ready to let him walk around the block by himself b/c of his distractability. But mostly b/c I’m afraid he’ll knock on people’s doors and bother them! A couple years ago he was riding his bike around the block with me dodging behind trees – I must have been SO ridiculous looking! He’s lost interest in biking so we haven’t gotten further yet. Finally last year I was able to let his sister,then 12,walk him to the park). Even little kids have “chores”: taking their plates to the sink, putting their dirty clothes in the hamper, picking up their toys and books. Don’t forget about phone skills and interacting with shopkeepers and employees. We still haven’t taken him camping; I guess I didn’t think of sleeping across the door, which still sounds like a good idea even though the relentless swim lessons are finally beginning to “take”. I’m also surprised there’s no bus for a kids with a presumable IEP or 504. My son was thrilled to ride the special bus in preschool (now we drive to a charter school).