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The courage of grandparents of special needs children

Written by  Sussan, Greenwald & Wesler

Grandparents of children with special needs are often unsung heroes in their family’s lives. They are often tremendous advocates for these children. They provide incredible support to both their grandchildren and their parents who often face many challenges outside the home. When a special needs child comes into a family, grandparents, like parents, need time to go through the stages of blame, sadness, anger, and acceptance as they adjust to how their expected roles may have changed. Once grandparents are ready to embrace the gift of special needs grandchildren and roll up their sleeves, there are many ways for them to help. The following suggestions come from the parents of special needs children.

Learn about your grandchild’s special needs. The best way to help special needs children is to learn about their disabilities. Parents are often extremely grateful when grandparents take the time to research the child’s condition—whether it is emotional or behavioral (like Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD or Tourette’s Syndrome), physical (like epilepsy) or developmental (like autism and Down Syndrome). Sources of information for grandparents include books, trusted online sources, educational presentations, and support groups. Grandparents who are armed with information are also likely to have a more positive relationship with their grandchildren because they have a better understanding of the child’s needs, strengths, and weaknesses.

Communicate with the child’s parents and offer support. For parents of special needs children, knowing that grandparents understand the child’s disability can provide parents a sense of relief. There are other ways that grandparents can be a great source of strength and support to parents of special needs children. Grandparents who are willing and able to be present in their children’s and grandchildren’s lives—such as by attending doctor’s appointments and school events—will be better able to speak openly with the parents about the grandchild’s needs. If parents are willing to be open about the child’s disability, grandparents may be open about it, too. Grandparents can further support parents by helping out with the family’s hectic schedule or offering babysitting so parents can have respite.

Help advocate for the special needs grandchild. Advocating for a child with special needs is difficult. The journey is emotional, time-consuming, and there is a lot to know. Grandparents often take an active role in helping parents advocate for their special needs children. Grandparents can become educated about their grandchild’s rights to special education and related services. Federal and State laws, including the Individuals with Disabilities Act, provide many rights for children with special needs enabling them to receive special education and services, often before the age of three. Grandparents can help parents focus on important issues during the ongoing process of advocating for a special needs child. A grandparent’s involvement can be tremendously helpful, especially since they know first-hand the emotional challenges that the parents face as the family navigates the special education system.

Offer unconditional love. Special needs children receive a great deal of feedback from teachers and professionals who correct them. Parents report being inundated with information about what they “should”—and their grandparents, alike—need unconditional love and acceptance most of all. There are many grandparents can do to show this love. They can learn about their grandchildren’s special interests, spend one-on-one time together, and develop their own special rituals with the child, such as simply taking a regular walk around the block. All of these shared experiences can help to create that prized grandparent-grandchild bond. Special needs children need that bond, perhaps even more than typical children.

Grandparents of special needs children have a lot to give, and they contribute meaningfully to the lives of special needs children every day. Special needs children benefit from having involved, nurturing grandparents. In return, grandparents get to experience the amazing discoveries and fulfillment that go along with loving a child with special needs and gifts.