I am scrolling through a Facebook post rather intently when I realize that during this few minutes my son with autism is putting on his shoes independently. I quickly switch over to camera mode and start taking a video because this definitely doesn’t happen often. My eight-year-old son typically is very dependent on me to help him with just about everything.

I then decided to push him a little bit and hand him his toothbrush. He holds it a foot from his mouth and starts acting like he’s brushing. I can’t help but smile because he seems to know what to do but after a few minutes I intervene and help him brush his teeth.

One of the hardest things in my parenting journey has been figuring out how much to help my kids with special needs. I want my children to grow up and be independent and self-sufficient, but the mom side of me still wants to baby and take care of them. It makes it even harder that my two oldest boys were both born with autism so they both require more help than the average child. My younger two children are pretty good at letting me know when they can do it on their own. There are many times I have to back up and stop myself from taking over.

This is even harder when your child has autism and has limited communication abilities. As a special needs mama, you tend to become more protective and the “mama bear” instinct gets stronger. Finding the line between helping and letting them do it on their own is a big challenge. So what do you do?

 1. Let them struggle
First and foremost you must let them struggle. This is so hard for me because the second I see a struggle or a tear I want to swoop in and fix it all. I know this will not help them in the long run so I have to sit back and allow my children to struggle through their problems. The struggle will not only teach them to persevere through problems but it will help me better understand what training they need to become successful. As parents, we have to stop jumping in and fixing everything for them.

2. Limitations and teaching
By letting them struggle, I can decipher between their capabilities and their limitations. I know nobody likes to believe their child has limitations but children with special needs do. I am not saying their limitations mean they cannot learn to do something, but it might mean they need more training to get there. And it also might mean there are some things they won’t be able to do. Pay attention and figure out what they need to learn before they can be successful. Use this knowledge to practice that one skill. You might have to work up to the skill instead of trying to be successful all at once.

For example, I noticed with my son when he was putting on his shoes, he kept forgetting to pull out the tongue. I need to work with him on adding that step into the process of putting on his shoe. This doesn’t mean he cannot successfully put on his shoes, but he does need more training before he is independently doing it.

3. It won’t be your way
This one is hard for every mom out there. When your child starts doing things independently, it is rarely done the way you would have done it. When my seven-year-old was probably four, he decided he was going to start dressing himself. His clothes were typically backwards or inside out, and nothing ever matched. It drove me crazy—but I had to look at that beautiful little mess of a kid and congratulate him on doing it by himself. I’ll admit, it was hard. I have learned over the years though that when my kids do something independently, it will not look the way it would if I had done it. I’ve had to learn to get over this and let them do it their way.

4. Slow down and let them do it!
I almost always feel rushed. My life is filled with running from one errand or task to the next and everything seems to be spinning faster than I can keep up with. There are many times when I rush to put my son’s shoes on for him because we are in a hurry. If I expect my children to learn these skills, then I need to give them time to practice. Slow down and give them time.

5. Watch for signs of shutdown
While struggle is good, there is a point at which you might have to step back. I notice this a lot in my 10-year-old with autism. There is a fine line between a productive struggle and a frustrated meltdown. I have to be careful not to cross that line or he will shut down. You know your child and as parents we have to learn to watch for signs that it is no longer a productive struggle. For my son, we’ve reached it when he starts getting frustrated and upset. He starts giving up and is not making progress. During a productive struggle, he might have trouble but he is still trying and focused on the task.

I don’t like to jump in immediately when my children start to struggle but if I see them going downhill into shutdown mode, I will. I make it a point to do as little as I can so that most of the task is still on them to complete.

There is a fine line between letting your children do things on their own and knowing when they actually need mom’s help. As parents, it is our job to prepare them for adulthood and to do this, we have to let go (even us moms of kids with special needs need to let them go sometimes). The level of independence a child can realistically achieve will be different for every child but we will never know how much they can achieve until we stop doing everything for them.

Christina Herzog

I am a mom to four children and a new stay-at-home mom. Two of my children have autism and my greatest passion has been to fight for them. I feel like I have been called to educate others on what it is like to be a special needs parent.