Encouraging the Special Interests of Kids with Special Needs
It’s hard to know with any child when to say no, when to say yes, how much to push or set limits, or when to let him or her try to take flight, knowing he or she could fail. All that is doubly hard if the child has a disability.
At the age of seven, my daughter regularly threw her pencil or marker across the room in tearful frustration or ripped up the paper she needed to write for school. But for some reason she was driven to sit patiently in front of a keyboard, all her concentration fixed on pressing down one key after another.
When she pleaded for lessons, I put her off or changed the subject. Her occupational therapist at school was certain that lessons would prove to be an enormous frustration for her. My daughter had a right-side weakness, a pronounced tremor, and fine motor problems. The therapist felt certain that starting piano lessons would be tantamount to handing her another failure.
But after listening to her play notes on her own day after day, I found a beginner book under the seat of the piano bench and gave her an impromptu lesson. As the therapist had predicted, she lacked the coordination to move her fingers. The ring finger and pinkie on the right hand did not move at all. My daughter commented on this quite cheerfully. “Oh well,” she said with a slight shrug. “I’ll just skip those notes.”
Like most parents of children with disabilities, I felt conflicted. We all have a natural parental instinct to encourage and support our children’s interests, but if the child has a disability, we also don’t want to set them up for too many failures. The urge to encourage is in conflict with the urge to protect.
My daughter’s determination was bigger than my concerns. She began to spend two or more hours at the piano each afternoon. I answered her questions and showed her the notes for “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Day after day I listened to the repeated sequence of notes, noticing the pause that occurred in place of the missing ones. Finally, I located a teacher who also had experience with physical therapy. Still worried that formal instruction would be too stressful, I agreed on a trial lesson.
A few days before her first lesson, my daughter came into the kitchen where I was fixing dinner and triumphantly announced that she had “figured it out.” I followed her into the living room and watched her play. “See,” she said. “If I make my arm go down, my fingers can play.” Amazed, I saw and heard the whole of “Twinkle, Twinkle,” with just a slight hesitation before the notes played by her right ring finger or pinkie. By the time I took my daughter to her first lesson, she was able to play an easily identifiable rendition.
There are lots of examples of children teaching themselves skills or overcoming obstacles on their own the kid who becomes a great basketball player by shooting hoops night after night on his driveway or the child who learns to read without being shown because she or he has spent hours looking at picture books. What we can forget, in our efforts to teach our children everything they need to know from reading to riding a bike, is that determination and the joy of discovery are responsible for so many human feats. Allowing children to play or discover an ability on their own can be a huge gift in and of itself.