One of the first things I learned after my son’s diagnosis was that environment could play a big role in his day-to-day life. That he needs to be able to differentiate the use of the bedroom, living room, kitchen and bathroom. And most of all, I realized that he needs a space just for him, a place where he could do his thing and just be. I remember, before we had a concrete diagnosis, my son liked to build a ‘nest’ where he would surround himself with his favorite things. He’d spend hours playing and rearranging his little space seemingly engrossed in his own world.
During our first week in the CDIC (my son’s clinic), aside from timing the duration of my son’s tantrums every time we leave him with his interventionist (he had separation anxiety and it took him a while to get used to his new schedule and environment) I looked for things that I could incorporate in our house for my son to have a place where he could play and learn at the same time, a space where he would feel safe enough to be himself.
In CDIC, they have different rooms for specific purposes with visuals to stimulate and help the children to easily identify the purpose of each room and ease the transition from one room to another. They provide students with visual schedules to make them aware of the passing of time after each activity and help them realize what is expected of them during intervention. Everything is labeled and arranged in a way that is easy for the child to navigate in.
I learned about TEACCH during one of parent support group meetings held at the clinic. Again, I will not go technical on this. We’re all new at this. Basically, this approach is organizing a physical environment and creating structures using work schedules and creating a system for the child to understand what is expected of him/her so he/she could act accordingly.
Most of the time a child’s behavior is affected when he/she doesn’t know what to do and for a special needs child this is often a major concern. Even us, adults, find it frustrating when we don’t know what’s going on. Actually, it’s in a human’s nature to get mad or angry when one feels lost or confused. This is the reason why, in some cases, it is necessary to create a controlled environment where the child is stimulated so he’d know and understand what is going on or what is going to happen next.
For children, like my son, who finds it a challenge to communicate it helps when he knows what he’s supposed to do. Simple things like changing clothes or packing away his things could be a trial that’s why we felt the need to create a system that will help him get involved with his day-to-day activities. We started with arranging his clothes; going out clothes on one drawer, home clothes on another, undies and socks on a small basket together with his towels and hankies. His shoes and slippers on the shoe rack have a specific place too. We then established house rules in regards to the use of the rooms. Eating is barred in every room except in the kitchen. The living room is for leisure and the bedroom is for sleeping and resting. The changes in the house were minor but the whole family had to be involved because this could help shape my son’s future. At first it was challenging to get my son to cooperate mainly because this was a change. And change, no matter how subtle, is huge for a child with special needs.
After we established my son’s routine and system around the house I started organizing his activity area. I had a vision on what I wanted it to look like but I had to clear a part of the house to accomplish what I had in mind. After the space was cleared I started collecting activity toys; first, of the activities that I know my son enjoys and later with activities that he’s having trouble with. To some extent, I mimicked the set up of the classrooms in the clinic. I separated the activity toys from the ‘fun’ toys. Every time I see an activity in the clinic that I feel I could imitate at home I waste no time in putting my DIY skills to good use. I labeled all the boxes so my son would know what is where. In a sense, I combined a play area and a classroom set up in one space.
I can’t describe the feeling I had when my son first started working and playing on his activity area. For mums, like me, who gets emotional at the slightest things I can only say that it made me want to make it better so my son could enjoy it more.
Creating this area helped my son develop his emerging skills and improve his focus with specific tasks and at the same time the set up helped him differentiate work from play. I can’t explain it good but through this small thing I witnessed how he learned how to overcome his weaknesses and improve his strengths.
Some might wonder and say that not everyone will have a space in the house to spare. In all honesty, we have a small house with little space but another lesson I’ve learned is you don’t need a big room. In fact, you don’t need a room at all! You need a place where there’re little or no distractions, where it’s quiet and the space could be arranged according to your child’s needs. Sometimes it’s just a matter of shifting and moving furniture around.
I’m a Potter fan. We don’t have a cupboard under the stairs but we do have a space beside the stairs and creating a small world on that simple space worked wonders for our angel. And to find something that helps is, for me, very precious.