Parenting Children With Extra Needs Right Now

Jamie Sumner

I forgot about egg cartons. And wooden blocks. And Ric Rac ribbon. And all the other things that made up my childhood. What was a project without Elmer’s glue and finger paint and a few brown paper bags from the grocery store?

More often than not, my twin 5-year-olds make their kindergarten projects at school on iPads. They do math on the classroom computers. For their older brother, Charlie, who has cerebral palsy and limited speech, this technology is not only welcome, but necessary. He uses an electronic speaking device to communicate and to complete all his homework. Technology gives him a voice.

But in these times of crisis, as we find ourselves at home with limitless hours of screen time for their schooling and also for their free time, I’m finding that they are, dare I say it, getting sick of their devices. The Kindles and iPads are no longer fun and shiny treats. Even Charlie is growing weary of using his speaking device for school work. We are all weary these days.

To help combat the digital overload, we’ve instituted a two hour “no internet” rule in our house. It helps us hold at least a loose grip on our sanity by enforcing a necessary break from the news updates that ding perpetually throughout the house like the alarm bells they are. The quiet has been lovely. This week I realized that the spring equinox happened without my noticing it. Thank the Lord that birds are still chirping in trees that are indeed blooming in a world that continues to turn. The coronavirus has not stopped time.

But still, time feels painfully slow. We are back to caveman hours. I watch the sun and wonder if it has moved. I count the hours to bedtime and realize it is eleven a.m. I wonder if it’s okay to eat dinner at four in the afternoon.

My mother, however, has taken this quarantine in stride. It turns out that while I forgot about the egg cartons and crafts of my childhood, she did not. As a former first grade teacher, she has been hoarding it all for such a time as this. She has a walk-in closet filled with kid’s activity books and wooden blocks and a blackboard at the ready with chalk and erasers—the kind you bang together to clean. She is truly old-school.

We are lucky to live in the same neighborhood and less than a mile from her, because she has taken it upon herself to make a few additions to our now entirely virtual curriculum. Did you know you can fold one giant piece of paper into sixths, draw a different picture on each one with jumbo crayons and then turn it into a book? I didn’t either.

Perhaps the most inspiring creation she’s come up with is for Charlie. Math is hard to practice on a speaking device. We needed something more tactile for him to keep his interest. Armed with a set of flashcards dating back to 1985, ten colored blocks, and an empty egg carton, she made a tangible way for him to answer the addition and subtraction problems on the flashcards. She labeled each block with a number and tucked them into their own slot in the egg carton. To answer, Charlie picks up the block and waves it cheerily in the air. It’s math and speech therapy and fine motor skills in one.

It is these small things that take me back to myself in a time when the world feels dystopian and unfamiliar. This red block with the number three on it, this page from the workbook with the perforated edge, my original Teddy Ruxpin, it makes me remember that though this feels like a new world, it really isn’t.

Being a parent to a child with special needs always requires an extra dose of creativity. With the current crisis, we are all parents of children with extra needs. Let’s embrace what works for us, whatever that looks like, whether it be technology, teachers willing to put their faces in that unflattering Zoom chats, a few old school tricks, or all of the above.


Jamie Sumner is the author of the middle-grade novel, ROLL WITH IT, and the special needs parenting book, EAT, SLEEP, SAVE THE WORLD. She’s also a mom to a son with cerebral palsy. She loves stories that celebrate the grit and beauty in all kids. She and her family live in Nashville, Tennessee.