When my son, who has autism and Type 1 diabetes, was moving out of the school system and into the world of adulthood, I asked him, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” He replied, “I want to be a helper!” This both surprised me and warmed my heart. This young man with significant needs just wanted to be useful, helpful to other people. What a great goal – for him and for all of us!

Looking back, I can see how his goal came about. When you have a child with a disability or a chronic illness their needs are valid and important, but sometimes being surrounded by people who want to help or fix or cure them can leave a medically complex young adult feeling like they don’t have much to contribute. Meaningful work can help build self-esteem. Now my task has become to help him identify ways that he can be helpful, so that he can connect with this feeling of purpose.

Here are some ways I’ve found to help my son be helpful that I hope you can use with your kids regardless of their levels of need:

1. Help around the house

Families facing the challenge of having a child with special needs lead busy and complicated lives. Figure out a way for your child to help, even in minor ways and even if they may need help to do it. From very minor tasks like sorting the laundry, feeding a pet, matching socks, helping to make the grocery shopping list, to much more complicated and demanding tasks like meal prep and major cleaning. The feeling of contributing to the family and being acknowledged for that contribution can be a source of great pride.

2. Volunteer

There are many non-profits and community organizations that could use help in both big and small ways. Being a regular volunteer (once a week, once a month) can give a real sense of pride and accomplishment.

3. Help someone who is younger or older

Is there someone in your neighborhood who needs help or is lonely? Reading to a child, taking in the neighbor’s trashcans, or visiting a senior’s home is a two-way street in which both people benefit.

4. Share your story

This may be one of the most powerful things you can encourage your child to do. Helping your child share his or her story and struggles can help people in your health community in ways you can’t even imagine.

5. Share your talents

Does your child like to write poetry or stories? Play music or sing? Create arts and crafts? Love to cook? Doing those things can be therapeutic in themselves, but when you share them with others, it can help them too.

6. Solve a problem

People with disability and illness face many problems, big and small. Help your child identify a problem in his or her life and then find a way to work toward a solution.

7. Raise awareness or raise money

Gather a team. Encourage your child to participate in a walk or fundraising event. Ask your friends to join you. Help your child connect with issues that really matter.

Each of these activities offers your child not only the ability to be helpful, but also the opportunity to build community. Making a contribution, having a sense of purpose, and connecting with people who matter makes all of us feel good and helps to make change for the better.

Joanna Jaeger

Joanna Jaeger is the mother of two young adults, one with autism, both with Type 1 diabetes. All along her journey, Joanna has found ways to connect with other families both seeking and providing support. She has been a long-time volunteer with Parents Helping Parents in Santa Clara, CA (www.php.org) providing help to families of children with a wide range of special needs as a mentor parent, advocate, fundraiser and Board member. She is passionate about food, travel, and baseball.


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