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5 Things Every Special Needs Parent Should Know

Autism comes in so many shapes and forms, so each parent's experience is different. But there's a commonality in the experience of most parents of autistic kids: life as we knew it is over -- and this is true of any developmental differences that someone's child might be faced with. That's why my husband and I never shy away from helping or guiding people whose children were newly diagnosed -- we know that having a support system is key to navigating the all challenges and beauty that come with special needs.

We all have a vision of what our children’s lives will look like from the moment we are expecting them (if not before). They'll go to school, all the way through college; they'll have a fulfilling career, marriage and family…. So when our first son was diagnosed at two years old, I had all kinds of questions. Will he grow out of it? Will he get married and have children? After 14 years the answers are now clear (No, he won’t grow out of it, no, he won’t marry or have children). But ultimately it is “happiness” we all truly want for our children; and that comes in so many forms.

Here are 5 things all special needs parents need to know.

1. It gets better. Not necessarily because your child will improve, but because it will never be as shocking and new as it is when you first receive a diagnosis. In fact, you'll eventually have a plan in place, and you will have teachers and providers who will understand your child. After years of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), speech and Occupational Therapy (OT), my son can sit at a desk or table and learn. Though we also know that every once in a while, he must stand up and dance across the room. So when he's really enjoying something and comes flying across the kitchen before going back to his seat, we don't really notice anymore. In other words, it gets better because your attitude changes, your gratefulness for what your child CAN do will eventually outweigh what he can’t; and dancing across the room one day won’t seem so strange anymore.

2. Don’t compare. When your child starts preschool or any sort of group activity with other children of different abilities, there will always be the temptation to compare deficits and progress. No good can come of this! Every child develops skills at different rates. You will drive yourself crazy if you are keeping score. So focus on your own child and his strengths and find a way to use those strengths to make progress in other areas. My son loves to cook (and eat). So for years, his speech therapists have used cooking to teach language; and his ABA therapists have used it to teach compliance…. They took his skills and passions and made them work for him!

3. You can’t try every therapy, drug, and diet. I mean, you can….but if you do, you will never really see what is working. Find your balance of researched therapies and experimental ones. But remember to be skeptical: beware of practitioners who pray on desperate parents who will try anything and of any treatment that promises to “cure” your child of whatever it is they have. If there were a cure, you would know about it. Try to be practical and don't rush. It can feel like you need to get it all in while your child is still a baby, but likely, you have a long road ahead and will know the right time to introduce different interventions.

4. Work to have a good relationship with your school and therapists. While you clearly need to be your child’s biggest advocate, upsetting the teachers, therapists and any other aides who spend so many hours each day trying to help your child won’t get you anywhere. You can almost always find something nice to say before you launch into the many complaints you may have. My husband always made me pick up donuts or pastries before our annual IEP meetings. I thought it was silly, but disagreements are always better settled over sweets. It shows that even though you may want to challenge your child’s team, you still appreciate their effort.

5. Surround yourself with people who get it. This is probably the most important and the reason we started Wolf+Friends app, an app that helps connect parents who have children with special needs. Having a child that is not typically developing can be extremely isolating. Parents feel like suddenly their friends who have neurotypical kids just “don’t get it.” It is imperative to have at least one friend you can be honest with about your child and your feelings about your child -- someone other than your partner! Special needs parents have an instant connection and a secret language of inclusion and paras and triennial evaluations. Your other friends don’t know what these words mean. Find someone who does.

Gena Mann is the co-founder of Wolf + Friends, a modern lifestyle app for moms raising children with special needs such as ADHD, learning differences, developmental delays, anxiety, giftedness, mental health issues, sensory processing issues, down syndrome, and autism. Download the app for iOS here.

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Alexis Ohanian is Serena Williams' husband, little Olympia's dad, and an outspoken advocate for fathers taking parental leave. In a recent op-ed the venture capitalist said taking parental leave was one of the most important decisions he'd ever made.

Now he's standing with Dove as the company launches The Pledge for Paternity Leave, asking fathers to pledge to actually take their leave if it's available, and asking allies and businesses to advocate for paid parental leave policies. But Dove isn't just collecting signatures. It's also giving $5,000 grants to new fathers.

Dove just launched The Dove Men+Care Paternity Leave Fund, which will see $1 million (in $5,000 increments) doled out to dads who apply to receive a $5,000 grant for parental leave.

These grants could help more dads get to do what Ohanian did. Most fathers aren't offered paid leave through their employers and simply can't afford to take unpaid leave (especially if their partner has already had to take unpaid time).

"No dad should have to sacrifice taking leave, and I've been very public about taking mine in an effort to show other men that you can still be an ambitious businessperson while also taking time for your family," says Ohanian, who notes that parental leave doesn't just benefit dads, but also their babies, families, workplaces and communities.

According to a media release, Dove's Paternity Leave Fund "is available for new or expectant dads who do not currently have access to paid leave through their employer."

So if a new dad in your life doesn't get paid leave at work, maybe they could get it through this grant.

The application is online, and to be eligible dads must be over 18, be legal residents of one the 50 United States (or D.C.) and work for an employer who offers no more than 10 days of paid paternity leave. Dads can be new dads (baby's gotta be under 8 months old) or be expecting a child through birth or adoption. And they have to have taken the Pledge for Paternity Leave as well.

It's unfortunate that more dads can't do what Ohanian did, either because of the stigma against fathers taking leave or a lack of financial support for it. Hopefully, American parents (moms and dads) will have access to paid parental leave by the time this PR campaign ends in 2020, but until then, this is a pretty cool move by the brand.

Dove knows that advertising can do more than just sell body wash—it can start cultural conversations. It's been more than 10 years since Dove first launched its Campaign for Real Beauty, and while that campaign has been criticized it has also been credited with starting the trend of more body-positive and inclusive advertising in marketing for women and girls.

It's kind of crazy to look back at some of the advertising from the early 2000s and see one very specific body type represented over and over again. Our generation lived through an era when everyone in the Delia*s catalog was the same size, but our daughters are growing up in a world where they can look at an Aerie campaign and see different sizes and body types represented (and with their stretch marks intact!).

Maybe 10 years from now the lack of paid parental leave for fathers will seem as bizarre as expecting every woman in a catalog to be a size zero. With any hope, we'll be talking about how crazy it was that it took a marketing campaign from a toiletries brand to change the way our culture sees parental leave for fathers.

But in the meantime, go get your money, dads. Dove's got $1 million to spend on this conversation.

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One of the hardest areas to declutter can be your children's toy closet. Does that beeping, singing firetruck spark joy for you? Well no, in fact, it might be the most frustrating toy, but then again, having an occupied, entertained child sparks more joy than all of your household items combined.

So do more toys really mean a more engaged child? Studies say no. Having fewer toys leads to a more ordered home and encourages your child to develop creativity, concentration and a sense of responsibility for taking care of their belongings. But how do you go about reducing the number of toys your child has when there are so many "must haves" on the market? Perhaps more importantly, how do you ensure you don't bring any more toys that will be quickly forgotten into your home?

The secret: Look for toys that are open-ended, toys that will last for years, toys that encourage creativity, and toys that benefit development.

Here are some of our favorite Montessori-inspired toys.

Open-ended construction


Toys that are open-ended, rather than have just one use, empower your child to be an active participant in their own play. An example of an open-ended toy is a set of blocks, while a more limited use toy might be a talking toy robot. Blocks are only fun if your child applies their own creative thinking skills to make them fun, while the robot is a much more passive type of entertainment.

Open-ended toys also tend to keep children's interest for much longer, as they grow with your child—as their skills develop, they can build increasingly complex structures and scenarios.

There are so many beautiful sets of blocks available, but here are a few good choices.

1. Wooden Blocks

2. Duplo Lego

3. Magnatiles

Pretend play


Beginning in early toddlerhood, many children begin to incorporate pretend play into their repertoire. They do this all on their own, without the aid of toys, turning mud into pies and sticks into hammers.

Still, these toys will encourage their budding imaginations and also allow them to process things they experience in their own lives through role-playing and pretend play.

4. Doll

5. Farm

6. People figures

7. Train set

Music


Music provides a great deal of joy to most children, and can also aid in brain development.

Providing regular opportunities for your young child to both create and listen to music will encourage him to develop an appreciation for music, an understanding of rhythm, and an outlet for creative expression.

8. Musical instrument set

9. Simple music player with headphones

Movement


Giving young children opportunities for movement is so important, both for their gross motor development and for giving them a daily outlet for their boundless energy. Children who spend plenty of time running around generally sleep better and are often better able to concentrate on quieter activities like reading.

Encouraging plenty of unstructured time outside is the best way to ensure your child gets enough daily movement. These toys though can help your child develop muscle coordination and strength, while also providing plenty of fun.

10. Balance bike

11. Pedal bike

12. Climbing structure

13. Wagon

14. Balls

Puzzles


Puzzles are wonderful toys for helping children develop spatial understanding, problem-solving skills, resilience and new vocabulary. Bonus, they also provide a quiet activity that can engage even young children for an extended period of time!

15. Peg puzzles

16. Jigsawpuzzles

17. Layered puzzles

Games



Games encourage your child to develop social skills such as taking turns and winning and losing gracefully.

Many games for young children also have educational benefits such as building memory or practicing counting.

18. Memory game

19. Bingo

20. Simple board game

Taking the plunge and reducing your children's toy collection can be scary. If you're uncertain whether your child will miss a certain toy, try putting it away in a closet for a month to see if they notice. Take some time to observe your child with their reduced toy collection and notice how their play changes.

Once you commit to fewer toys, you'll find you can truly be intentional with what you provide your child and can also choose higher quality toys when you're only purchasing a few. There will also be far fewer little objects strewn around the house to trip over, which is a huge bonus!

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For so many parents, finding and funding childcare is a constant struggle. How would your life change if you didn't have to worry about finding and paying for quality childcare? Would you go back to work? Work more hours? Or just take the four figures you'd save each month and pay off your student loans faster?

These hypothetical scenarios have been playing in the minds of many American parents this week as presidential hopeful Senator Elizabeth Warren unveiled her plan for free or affordable "high-quality child care and early education for every child in America."

Universal childcare will be a cornerstone of Warren's campaign for 2020. It's a lofty goal, and one many parents can get behind, but is it doable?

Supporters note it's been done in other countries for decades. In Finland, for example, every child has had access to free universal day care since the early 1990s. Sweden, too, has been building its universal childcare system for decades.

Critics of Warren's plan worry about the price tag and potential for ballooning bureaucracy, and some are concerned that subsidizing childcare could actually make it more expensive for those who have a government-funded spot, as it could result in fewer private childcare providers.

But subsidized childcare had lowered prices in other places. In Sweden, parents pay less than $140 USD to send children to preschool. In Finland, the cost per child varies by municipality, household income and family size. A parent on the lower end of the income spectrum might pay as little as the equivalent of $30 USD, and the maximum fee is about $330 a month.

But Finland's population is on par with Minnesota's. Sweden is comparable to Michigan.

So could the Nordic model scale to serve the hundreds of millions of families in America?

As Eeva Penttila, speaking as the head of international relations for Helsinki, Finland's education department once told The Globe and Mail, "you can't take one element out and transfer it to your own country. Education is the result of culture, history and the society of a nation."

Right now America spends less on early childhood education than most other developed countries (only Turkey, Latvia, and Croatia spend less), but that wasn't always the case. This nation does have a history of investing in childcare, if we look back far enough.

Back in World War II, when women needed to step into the workforce as men fought overseas, America invested in a network of childcare to the tune of $1 billion (adjusted to today's money) and served hundreds of thousands of families in almost every state through center-based care. Parents paid between $0.50 and $0.75 per child per day (the equivalent of about $10 in today's money).

So America does have a historical and cultural precedent, not to mention a current model of universal preschool that is working, right now, in the nation's capital. In D.C. In Washington, D.C., 90% of 4-year-olds attend a full-day preschool program for free, according to the Center for American Progress. Seventy percent of 3-year-old are going too, and the program has increased the city's maternal workforce participation rate by more than 10%.

It won't happen overnight

While some American parents might be daydreaming of a life without a four-figure day care bill in 2020, the road to true universal childcare for all children in America would be a long one. Peter Moss, a researcher at the University of London's Institute of Education, previously told The Globe and Mail it took Sweden "many years to get it right."

Indeed, the 1990s saw long wait lists at Swedish day cares, but the growing pains of the '90s paved the way for the enviable system Swedes enjoy today.

According to Moss, governments in other countries look at the Nordic model and "tend to say, 'We can't do that.' But what they really mean is 'We can't suddenly do that.' In other countries, they just don't get to grips with what needs doing and actually plot a course."

Maybe America's starting point is found in its history books, or in the modern day preschools of the nation's capital, or in the conversations happening between now and 2020. It doesn't have to be Warren's plan, but America does need a plan for safer, more affordable childcare.

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It's so unfortunate that in the working world there are still those who believe mothers are more distracted and less productive than people without children.

Research proves that just isn't true—working moms are actually more engaged than working dads and fathers and equally committed—and plenty of working mothers will say that parenthood has actually made them more productive.

Ayesha Curry counts herself among those moms who become more efficient at work after becoming parents. The entrepreneurial mom of three seems unstoppable when it comes to expanding her career, which she launched as a lifestyle blog back when the oldest of her three children was still a baby.

"You don't realize how much you can get done in a day until you become a parent and you're like, 'what was I doing with my time before'?" she recently old Cheddar's Nora Ali.

Now less than seven years later she's built her own empire as a mom, not in spite of being one.


Now a New York Times best-selling cookbook author and restaurateur, Curry has also got her own brand, Homemade, and you can find her products bearing her name in places like Target and JC Penny. She's been promoting a partnership with GoDaddy and she's an ambassador for the Honest Company, too.

Curry says motherhood taught her how to multitask and manage her time.

"I have three children, so I've had to grow four invisible arms," she explains. "I've definitely learned efficiency through being a parent. It's helped me in my business tenfold."

As a celebrity, Curry's life experience is kind of unique, but her experience of becoming better at work because of motherhood isn't, according to experts.

Career coach Eileen Chadnick previously told Motherly that motherhood is an asset in the workplace, in part because it trains women to be both empathetic and assertive at the same time, a combo that makes for great leaders. "There are incredibly nice, compassionate women who are very strong and know how to take a stand," Chadmick said. "And they're trusted and admired by others even if they need to say 'no' to their employees."

That's something Curry agrees with. Because it's her name on that frying pan, cookbook or bedspread, she doesn't shy away from saying 'no' when she doesn't like something. "I'm really good about being forceful and putting my foot down," she explains.

It's easier to put your foot down when you've already grown four invisible arms. That's the balancing act of motherhood, and it's what makes this mama so good at business.

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