Future Reflections         Summer 2011

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Plays Well with Others

by Amber Bobnar

Reprinted from Wonderbaby Newsletter, June 2011

From the Editor: Amber Bobnar is the creator of <www.wonderbaby.org>, a Website that offers many articles with practical information on raising a blind child. The site has recently become affiliated with Perkins School for the Blind. Here Amber describes how she helped her son Ivan cope with a vexing problem.

A distressed Ivan holds motherís hands on a hayride.We're playing at the park in the late afternoon because that's when nobody else is there. It's just me and my little guy, Ivan.

Another family approaches, and I tense up. Will we have to leave? The family has a little girl about my son's age, around two. She laughs as she runs to the swings. My heart sinks. Why did she have to laugh? Ivan's ear-splitting screams can be heard blocks away as we pack up our things and head home.

At two years old Ivan had a huge problem: he hated kids. I don't mean that he disliked kids or preferred to play on his own. No, my son hated to be around other children. If we were anywhere near another child, Ivan would kick and scream as though we had just encountered a boy-eating monster.

We were preparing for Ivan to transition to preschool in less than a year. The prospect of him peaceably sitting in a classroom full of other kids seemed remote at best. We knew we had to change his behavior, and fast!

Maybe you've experienced this with your own child. Some kids with vision impairments tend to get upset around other children. They'll be doing just fine, happily enjoying a day out with their parents, when suddenly they hear a child laugh or squeal, and the day is done. Some blind kids may even react to their own siblings. I know parents who desperately attempt to keep their children apart so that everyone stays calm. That's no way to live in your own home!

What can you do to help your child tolerate, and eventually enjoy, being around other children? Here's what we did for our son.

Understand Why

Kids are terribly unpredictable. They run and jump, they laugh and scream. They're loud, rambunctious, and playful. Kids are totally capable of being angels one second and going into tantrums the next. They make very little sense and, oh yeah, they like to throw things.

Your child may associate other children with frightening sounds, unpredictable behaviors, and sudden hits in the head from flying objects. If you think about it that way, being afraid of other kids makes perfect sense!

Some blind kids have trouble with sensory integration. Without vision to help put things together, it can be hard to take in all the noises, smells, and sensations coming at them every day. Blind and visually impaired kids can feel overwhelmed by loud sounds or other intense sensory input. You need to help your child figure out what's happening when other kids are around and change negative associations to positive ones.

Set Goals

Ivan enjoys a swing in the park.It can feel daunting to tackle a major goal, but if you take it in realistic and attainable steps you're more likely to succeed. When we were trying to help our son acclimate to being around other kids, our ultimate goal was for him to transition into a preschool program at age three. We began with a smaller goal. I wanted Ivan to be able to sit through the half-hour story time at our local library.

Story time took place every Thursday morning in the Children's Room. Each week a cheerful librarian led the moms and toddlers in a song, read a few books following the theme of the day, and closed with a couple more songs. I knew that for Ivan the session would be pure torture.

Before we got started, I spoke with the library staff to explain our problem and what we were trying to do. Having them understand our situation helped tremendously. I didn't have to worry about being thrown out or getting glared at by the staff. They were on our team, and they were rooting for us!

Now we had a clearly set goal. We just had to figure out how it could be achieved.

Take Baby Steps

If you think about it, being afraid of other children is really a behavioral problem. Your child may have perfectly good reasons for feeling the way he or she does, but the reaction to those feelings is inappropriate. You need to help your child form new associations, control his or her feelings, and curb troublesome behavior. None of this can be done overnight!

With our library dilemma, we began by sitting outside the Children's Room with the door ajar (with permission from the librarians, of course). Ivan could hear what was going on in the room, but he could tell that the activity was far off and feel that he was out of harm's way.

By sitting away from the action, Ivan learned to listen to what was happening. I explained to him what was going on in the room, and he began to understand that story time wasn't dangerous at all. He never got hurt, even though he was still uncomfortable. I was trying to teach him that being uncomfortable doesn't mean you can run away. Stop, listen, and figure out what's around you was the lesson. Is it safe? Are you okay? Then let's calm down.

We inched closer and closer to the door every week until we were right outside the Children's Room. Eventually we were able to sit on the very outskirts of the group. Then we moved closer and closer until Ivan was actually in the middle of story time!

This process took about three months, and it was only one part of our plan. While we were attending story time every Thursday, the rest of the week we worked on changing Ivan's associations about other kids.

Change Associations

Your child may associate other children with frightening, unpredictable experiences. Part of your job is to change that association. You want your child to hear other kids and think, "Oh, there are kids here! There must be something fun going on!"

We made a list of things that Ivan really, really liked. Then we did our best to get him involved in these activities around other children. Here is our list of things Ivan really enjoyed when he was two years old. Actually it hasn't changed much in the past four years.

a. swimming
b. eating
c. swinging
d. listening to music

You see where we're going with this?

We took Ivan to our local pool almost every day so he could experience the water. We asked when would be the best time to come when other kids were there. We found out that a class came in every Wednesday afternoon. We were there every Wednesday. Ivan held on to me as tightly as he could while we were splashed and tossed by the kids in the pool, but he didn't cry. The water was so much fun he didn't get too upset about the noise and confusion. He was worried about the kids in the water, but at the same time he was thrilled by the pool itself.

On other days, during snack time, I packed Ivan's favorite foods into his diaper bag and we headed to the playground down the road from our house. We would sit under a tree and eat peaches and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches while we listened to kids scream and laugh. Ivan whimpered, but he loved his food so much that he put up with the noise.

After the snack was settled I'd sit Ivan in the swing. I let him feel the back-and-forth movement while the other children ran wildly around the playground. This was one of the hardest parts of our plan, but eventually Ivan would calm down enough to enjoy the swing while he listened to the other kids.

Finally, we took Ivan out to hear live music as often as we could. This was the best thing for him. We'd find free library shows, outdoor summer concerts, and any other venue that gave a musician the chance to sing "Wheels on the Bus" to a bunch of screaming toddlers. Ivan cried and clung until he heard the guitar or piano begin to play. Then he would relax and listen to the music.

After months of these activities, Ivan began to associate kids with fun times. Kids are at the pool, the park, and at concerts. Kids like to do the sorts of things that Ivan likes to do. If we hear kids, then maybe something fun is happening!

Be Patient

I'm not going to lie to you and say this was a breeze. These were some of the hardest months of our lives. It is difficult, painful, and counterintuitive to take your child over and over again to places where you know he will be unhappy. As parents we're hardwired to protect our kids, not to torture them! But I knew I had Ivan's best interest at heart. I knew that if he didn't overcome his fears, he'd have a horrible time in preschool.

In Ivan's case, our efforts paid off. After three or four months of constantly being around other children, Ivan decided that kids weren't so bad after all. And his first day of preschool was wonderful!

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