Have you ever been out in the community – at a store, the gym, or the movies – and become aware of someone with an intellectual disability (ID) or other special needs in a learning situation? Have you ever wondered how you could help?
Human services agencies have increased their efforts to integrate individuals with special needs into the community. The results include more opportunities for fun and meaningful outside activities as well as a feeling of belonging in their own city or town. This positive movement has expanded public awareness of the importance of welcoming and making accommodations for people of all ability levels.
At organizations like May Institute, staff members help individuals with special needs access locations such as grocery stores, banks, and senior centers. While we work hard to promote involvement and increased independence, it is not always easy. It takes the cooperation of business owners, staff members, neighbors, and people like you to support successful outings.
At the grocery store, for example, you may see a staff person assisting an individual with special needs as she scans her items, greets the checkout clerk, uses coupons, and pays for her groceries. The best way you can support this person as she learns these important skills is to wait patiently. Doing so will allow her and the staff member working with her to enjoy a calm, non-pressured experience.
Next, let’s move along to your gym. A new gym member (a person with special needs) walks up to you. The staff person assisting him verbally prompts him to say hello and shake your hand. Instead, the young man reaches out and gives you a hug. In this case, it is likely that the staff member will provide him with some corrective feedback. She might say, “Try again. Shake hands and say hello.” In this scenario, it is best to follow the lead of the staff person who is probably trying to teach the individual how to appropriately greet others. Avoid saying something like, “Oh, that’s okay, I like hugs.” While that response might be kind and friendly, it is sending the wrong message to the individual who is working to learn appropriate social skills.
It is always helpful to heed the advice of the staff person working with the individual in social environments. If you are unsure if it is a good idea to offer a greeting, feel free to ask! The staff member may make suggestions such as how the individual likes to be greeted or how to sign “hello,” or may encourage you to keep your voice low.
If a person with special needs is having a difficult time in public, it may be best to walk away. Oftentimes, challenging behaviors exhibited by people with ID are reinforced, or encouraged, by attention from others; therefore it is best to let trained staff handle the situation. If you encounter what you believe to be a potentially dangerous situation, you may ask, “How can I help?” While it is highly unsafe (for the individual) if you physically intervene, the staff person may ask you to make a phone call, or hold her handbag while she attends to the safety of the individual in her care.
As warm weather approaches, people of all abilities are looking forward to enjoying outside activities and opportunities to socialize. By keeping in mind the above suggestions, we can all play a part in supporting people with disabilities in our community this summer and throughout the year.
By Caroline Scherpa, M.A., BCBA
May Institute is an award-winning nonprofit organization with more than 65 years of experience in serving children and adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, brain injury and neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. For more information, call 800-778-7601.