Becoming Independent and the Issue of Safety
Many parents are baffled by how to allow their teen or young adult son or daughter to have more independence and normalcy when they may have little or no sense of danger or caution in public situations. Parents pale at the thought of leaving their teens alone or allowing their young adult son or daughter to go out in the community unescorted.
As we have stated elsewhere in the articles on this website, the individual’s processing level has much to do with his or her ability to comprehend complex situations. In addition to that, we really must explore WHY many individuals with DS do not have the necessary skills to function at home alone or in public places without supervision. Is this something that is part of the syndrome? Absolutely not.
When we look out how we train “typically developing” children to make safe decisions, function in public without us and learn to maneuver in the larger society, we can see that this process is done in small, incremental steps throughout childhood. Although different communities and groups have different styles as to how this process is completed, everyone gradually trusts children with increasing responsibilities and independence knowing and accepting that they will make mistakes but allowing them gradual freedoms in order for them to learn and “test the waters.” By the time these children are young adults, they are fairly competent. They can go away to college, go out into the community to shop and socialize without adult supervision. In other words, they gradually join the adult community through this long series of years of little steps toward independence.
The road never taken by many parents with children with DS is this very road toward independence. As a result, we have teens and young adults who have no experience or little experience being home alone, moving about the community on their own even in relatively simple ways such as shopping and running errands. No wonder they are naïve! They have not been allowed to make mistakes, learn from mistakes. They were not given the chance to take those incremental steps toward independence.
So what do we do now? We start the journey and we move along systematically. Some parents start by setting up rules of home alone behavior and then trying their son or daughter there for small periods of time. Some parents start with sending their son or daughter into a small store to make a purchase. They may have a spouse or neighbor hiding in the store to make sure that goes right, but they are taking that first step. So whether you start with your spouse hiding in a store to watch your son or daughter make their first truly independent store transaction or you start with a twenty minute home alone experiment, the important thing is to start. Once you start, keep going. Even if your child makes a mistake, keep going.
Typically developing kids make tons of mistakes. No one stops their forward progress over these mistakes. The child may be grounded for a while or given extra chores for a while but the parents continue to push forward because that is a necessary process to produce an independent adult. Sons and daughters with DS have a right to continue to be pushed forward despite errors toward that coveted goal of independence.