When Joy had just turned three, we paid a six-month follow-up visit to the pediatric developmentalist / autism-expert who had diagnosed her. We were struggling with some behavior and safety issues at the time. Joy was getting taller, able to reach things on counters and climb onto tables, and she liked the commotion of the results when she managed to shatter a glass or plate.
The expert advised us crisply that we had to strip down our environment. Plastic plates and glasses for EVERYBODY, she said. Pack anything breakable into storage. Consider folding chairs that you can fold up after meals so there won't BE any way to climb on the table. Creating a safe household for Joy comes first.
We were stunned.
We were also... non-compliant. (Heh. We're also not seeing this expert any more.)
Oh, we made a few changes. But they were changes that suited our family. Instead of folding chairs, we just made sure to do a better job of pushing chairs in to the table to make them less appealing for climbing. Instead of ditching our glassware and ceramics altogether, we did a better job of gating the kitchen and putting the breakables away.
I realized at the time that the developmentalist was recommending a chainsaw for a job that kitchen shears could do just as well. What I didn't put together till later was that her recommended changes flew in the face of a very important principle.
Least Restrictive Environment.
Readers who have, or work with, special needs kids in the public education system are nodding their heads in recognition just about now.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) includes two fundamental requirements: a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). It also ensures that each child will be served a bowl of acronym soup daily... OK, not really. What the LRE amounts to in the school setting is that you don't shut away or segregate off our kids unless there's a REALLY compelling reason to do so. The presumption is that children with special needs are to be educated among their "typical" peers to the full extent possible.
Who among us wants to be placed under unnecessary restrictions? Either at school or at home?
The trick is figuring out which boundaries and modifications are necessary and helpful for any given kiddo.
The modifications around our house, that we've put in place to have a safe and nurturing environment for Joy, have ebbed and flowed over time. Some things are constant -- in general, we try to help her focus by cutting down the clutter. There's one toy-box in the living room, one in the bedroom closet, and a set of toy-shelves in the downstairs playroom. We try to keep everything easily put-away-able. (Sometimes more successfully than others.)
We also try to keep down the temptation for things that could be pulled down to make a big crash & mess. The Christmas tree was up on the stereo cabinet. There are no plants in grabbing range, though she's growing to the point that she could knock one over if she tried...
Winter 2008 was an intense time for boundaries. Joy was climbing over the back of the couch to jump on the low bookcase that sits back-to-back with the couch, and knocked over the lamp that sat on top of said bookcase. So we bought a hanging lamp with a chain & cord that trails up the wall, and we covered a big piece of cardboard with wrapping paper and set it up as a barrier between the couch-back and bookcase. Joy was dashing into back bedrooms & bathroom at the slightest opportunity, so we kept ALL the doors closed ALL the time. She started pulling the music rack on the piano and dumping Rose's piano books off, so we tied the rack to the back of the piano with a piece of yarn.
In summer 2008 we put in the big barrier, just before I started blogging in fact! We got a fence for our big back yard.
One might think that a fence was a massive restriction. In a way, I suppose it is. But when we went into the backyard with Joy before the fence, we used to have to be on high alert. She had this little game where she would suddenly dash off, without warning, and head for freedom and the street. And she is FAST. So to keep her safe, we had to be within hovering distance, at all times, ready to sprint at any moment.
With the fence, we don't have to hover. In fact, we can give her a whole lot more freedom within that boundary than she used to be able to have. A perceptive friend at our fence party that summer noticed it right away. "She's so FREE!" was the comment.
It's my belief that as Joy came to recognize and heed the fence boundary, she started observing other boundaries as well. We were able to take down the cardboard from behind the couch. The doors in the back hallway stay open now, and Joy just doesn't venture back there. Rose accidentally broke the yarn on the music rack recently, and we didn't bother re-installing it.
The right restrictions, at the right time. A balance that we're continually trying to keep.
Another issue that we see coming up is the question of Joy's sleeping arrangements. She's currently in a tented-crib for the night, and a PeaPod travel tent for nap. These are designed such that she will not be able to get out, and since she's not toilet-trained, she doesn't really need to get out. It's also very helpful to us to have her confined to the crib when she wakes in the middle of the night and plays for several hours straight.
But she has technically well outgrown the specs of the crib. She's strong and getting bigger. We'll have to figure something else out, that can teach her to sleep in a big-girl bed and keep her safe and not impinge on her sister, with whom she currently shares a room. I don't think we're going to need something like these specialty beds (designed for a least-restrictive environment, by the way -- to "help the person live as normal a life as possible, with as few barriers as possible and still be safe"!) It's good to know the range of what's out there, though, as we make decisions on next steps. "Been-there, done-that" stories would be most welcome.
This post was sparked by Barbara at TherExtras, who is currently hosting a blog-carnival on the question of "how you have arranged your home to enhance your child’s development." I'm looking forward to hear how others have interpreted the theme!