Adventures in Parenting: Finding a Babysitter for Your Special Needs Child
The first time I left my son Max alone with a babysitter was when he was two years old. We knew something was up with him but we still had not gone through the process of getting him a diagnosis. What we did know is that he was extremely impulsive, hyperactive and he also didn’t seem to pay a never mind to any type of direction.
One of my best friend’s parents came to visit our family over a weekend and my friend’s mother graciously offered to babysit. My husband and I looked at each other with that “look” to ask without words, “Now who is going to tell this poor woman about Max?” I decided to go first. “Well this is a wonderful offer but I have to tell you ahead of time that Max can be a handful.” My friend’s mother looked over to Max who was sweetly and quietly playing with his stuffed animals. “What do you mean?” she asked doubtfully. I tried to explain that Max had a tendency to wander, to take off running, and that for the most part he was unresponsive to verbal direction. My friend’s mother took this all as a challenge. She declared, “I know all about children and I know what to do. Don’t worry, everything will be fine.”
Before we agreed to her offer we gave lots of advice. “If you go anywhere, use the stroller so he doesn’t take off.” My friend’s mother chided, “Don’t worry. You go. I can keep up with a two year old.” We left while the getting was good and for the first time in years we had a dinner out in an adult restaurant by ourselves. Of course I wanted to call as soon as we left home. But my husband stopped me and told me just to enjoy our time. During dinner we wished out loud that if this went well then perhaps we could go out again.
The moment of truth came when we came home after our few hours of freedom. We found our beloved sitter red faced and out of breath. “We just got home too” she wheezed. When she found her breath she declared, “Lordy that boy can run.” Alarmed, I asked her what happened. It seems she took Max for a walk. She did not use the stroller as we had advised. Thankfully Max had worn a hooded jacket for this walk because our sitter described how she had to grasp onto the hood to make sure Max did not run away. In fact, they never walked. They ran the whole time.
The words “I told you so” never escaped my mouth but I sure wanted to say them. Instead we both thanked my friend’s mother for her time and was about to invite her back but she was eagerly going for the door. “I don’t know how you do it” she confided as she slipped away.
It would be a couple more years before we attempted the whole babysitting thing again. By then we knew more about Max and his special needs. And we also had some methods for coping with some of his behaviors. We could more readily explain why Max sometimes behaved as he did and what to do about it.
Armed with a checklist of ideal babysitter characteristics I would do a small informal interview with potential candidates.
• First I would check their shoes. Comfortable flat shoes or tennis shoes-check. Fancy boots or high heels-sorry. You need the right footwear to be able to keep up with my kid.
• Smokers and out of shape folk were immediately crossed off the list. Again, I needed someone with the physical stamina to keep pace with my son’s hyperactive energy.
• I would ask what activities they enjoyed. Sitting, watching TV, and reading was not going to cut it. Students of drama, art, or athletics were definitely more in my favor. I wanted someone who was creative, had passion for something, and could hold my son’s interest.
• In round about ways I tried to assess if the person was positive and open to learning. If I got the sense that the candidate was a know it all and had some preconceived notion about how children should be then this probably would not work out. In other words, no control freaks allowed.
• The best indicator of all as to whether a sitter or helper would be a good match for my son was to have them spend some time together. I would always arrange for the candidate to have some play time with Max with me in another room but casually observing. I am telling you that you can learn so much by simply setting up an activity such as playing with playdough and watching the interaction. One lady we had come over was so intent upon taking my son’s playdough creations and “fixing them” that I could not even allow this pre-babysitting session to continue. Thank you for your time and goodbye.
• It goes without saying that you want to check references. If the person is found through an agency you will want a criminal background check. You can’t be too careful these days. Most of all trust your gut. If something does not seem right do not hire the person.
• If your child does have considerable challenges you may have good luck with hiring students from the local colleges who are taking classes to become special educators. Call up your local university and ask the professors about their top students. I have found that they are very eager to share such information and in some cases the babysitting can turn into a learning experience or internship for your sitter.
Over the years my screening process has worked very well. We have found some wonderful people to work with our son as well as give us the time to recharge our batteries. Our first helper was a cheerleader who was in school to learn how to be a special education teacher. She was a perfect match for my son, perky, positive and brimming with energy. We have been extremely lucky to find helpers who would stay on with us for years. Over time these special individuals become like family.
Treat your babysitters and helpers well. I know that my son can be extremely challenging and it does take a certain personality to work well with him. It pays to take your time and be choosy. Your child deserves the best. And you deserve time to yourself without having to worry if your sitter has the skills necessary to ensure your child’s safety and well being.
Now how about you? Do you have a babysitter, aide, or helper for your child? How has that gone for you? What criteria did you use to select the people who work with your child? We want to hear your stories. I don’t want to be talking to myself here. Your participation is vital to this site.