When I first noticed that au pairs could indicate with a simple check mark whether they were “willing” to match with a family with host kids with special needs, I was surprised.
I was pleased that there was an easy way for au pair candidates to indicate, without embarrassment, whether or not they felt they were up to whatever additional or different challenges might come up when caring for a child with special needs. And certainly, that simple check mark (or not) made it easier for potential host parents to skip right over candidates who were not “willing”.
But I have often wondered how well au pair candidates understood what “special needs” could and couldn’t mean, how many of them chose not to be willing and missed a great experience, and how many more chose “willing” only to be surprised, and maybe even over-challenged.
We want to believe that family life with a special needs child brings its own unique joy. Certainly, my family has chosen to see our members with special needs as bringing us something valuable– but of course, these are our children, our sisters, our brothers, our cousins. They are ours, we are theirs, and that’s it.
I don’t think it’s quite the same when the relationship is between a non-family member caregiver and a child with special needs.
In good situations, caregiver and child build a strong and positive relationship, and in some situations no amount of willingness or support can bridge a gap between what someone expects childcare to be, and what childcare turns out to be.
My sister had several au pairs for her family, and most of these au pairs — who were all special needs willing — developed strong, loving, protecting and helpful relationships with all the children despite their differing needs. One developed such an appreciation for my niece that she investigated becoming a special ed teacher.
Parents need to be especially forthcoming with specific details about their children and what they need.
Even when an au pair says s/he was willing, s/he might be more willing and comfortable with some kinds of needs over others. A child with physical challenges might be more difficult or more comfortable for the particular au pair than a child with cognitive challenges, or vice versa. Not only the type of challenges, but also the amount of challenges, should be made clear to candidates.
I think my sister and brother-in-law got particularly good at describing to potential au pairs exactly what their daughter with special needs is like, what kind of attention she needs, what kind of extra help she needs, what energy level is required, and what kind of attitudes work best. They have sent many photographs, short videos, and even brief pamphlets about Down Syndrome challenges to educate their potential au pairs before they match. And, they talk candidly about their own expectations, what they find challenging, and what they find joyful about having two “typical” kids and one “special needs” kid.
By being forthcoming and candid up front, I think they’ve been able to set realistic expectations for their incoming au pairs, and this has been very helpful in getting matches that work. They haven’t assumed that candidates know what their child ‘might’ be like, or assumed that the candidate’s understanding of what it means to have Down Syndrome matches what’s unique to their own child.
(Not all kids with a particular “special need” are alike– if you’ve known one child on the autistic spectrum, you sure as heck don’t know what to expect about anyone else with autism, or ADHD, or MD, or limited hearing. )
Parents need to be realistic about what their children need that is ‘special’.
In addition to being forthcoming about what a child with special needs actually needs — whether that’s practice with physical therapy, more than average laundry, or the patience to repeat a game over and over — parents looking to find an au pair who is capable as well as willing also need to be especially reflective and conscious of their own expectations.
Some parents (of typical and special needs kids) lack a realistic sense of what their child needs. I don’t mean to be harsh in saying this, but I’ve seen parents who think their children are delightful and easy to be with, when in truth the kids are rude hellions. Or, their children obey them, and ignore any other adult. Or, the parents firmly believe the child will outgrow the willfulness or shyness or whatever, and so they underplay it.
To find an au pair that can fit with your children, you have to be honest with yourself about where your children are. This is true for host children who are developing along typical trajectories, as well as those children who are developing on less typical trajectories.
Parents need to have a firm grip on their own attitudes, beliefs, and values when it comes to the way they want their children to be part of the world.
Some parents prefer to integrate their children into as many typical social situations as possible, while some prefer to have their children in situations with other kids with different abilities. Obviously, choices like these depend on the specific challenges a child faces, but also they depend on a family’s philosophy about how their children (typical or with special needs) will find his or her place in the world.
There are also cultural differences as well as personal differences in attitudes towards and expectations of people with special needs that come into play. For example, in some cultures families are still somewhat ashamed of children with special needs, whereas others are more inclusive, and still others set them in a special and positive place.
Parents have to be ready to take on a whole additional level of training, teaching and role modeling.
Parents have to recognize that caring for child with special needs will have all sorts of unanticipated challenges for an au pair and will require her to be vigilant in different ways.
Here’s one quick example– I was at a party last weekend, where one of the guests was using a wheelchair and needed someone to help her move with it. At one point, the person using a wheelchair was in the path of the guy carrying the cake. So someone rolled the guest — and her wheelchair– out of the way (1) without asking her, and (2) leaving her facing a wall with her back to the rest of the guests.
Yes, that person meant to help, and yes, after a quick word from nosy me that person will approach a person using a wheelchair differently from now on.
An au pair will have to learn little stuff like that, over and over, and sometimes he or she will hurt people’s feelings as the au pair learns.
Also, if your child is not home-bound, your au pair will find him or herself out with your child in situations where s/he will need to manage how other people interact with your child. S/he will need to be the one to say “Yes, it’s okay to ask why he wears a helmet.” S/he will need you to teach her or him what to do when someone in public stares, or laughs, or talks much to loudly at your child to compensate for their own discomfort.
I realize that any parent of a child who has special needs will have already thought of all of this, and that I may be missing some critical points, so let’s continue the conversation, below.
What can parents do to find an Au Pair willing, able, and ready to care for a child with special needs?
[Note: ProAuPair is one agency that offers au pairs with additional certifications, such as certification in occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy, etc. that can be especially beneficial for children with special needs. This comment is not meant as an advertisement or endorsement, only to let you know that ProAuPair does have au pairs specially qualified to work with some children’s speciall needs. cvh 11.2010]
Beauty Some rights reserved by Andreas-photography
Little Missy & Princess P Some rights reserved by Andreas-photography
Tilly (being silly) Some rights reserved by Andreas-photography
(A beautiful child, not my niece)