As the community of people with developmental disabilities grows, so must our strategies for embracing differences. Now that children with autism, mental retardation, and a myriad of other developmental disabilities are becoming a bigger part of the mainstream, they are seeking out opportunities to work and play on an equal field with the able-bodied community. Recreation professionals are at the forefront of providing the play part of the equation, and not just because the ADA requires it. Especially in youth programs, people who require accommodations for behaviors are emerging as a major segment of the participant base. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, more than eight percent of children ages 5-21 have a diagnosed disability. So how do we accommodate this population? How do the behavior techniques we've always used apply to someone who may not understand our conduct requirements? How do we balance being unbiased with keeping facilities safe and productive?
Some large municipalities are fortunate enough to have dedicated facilities for youth with disabilities, while others must make accommodations for them in existing youth programs. Behaviors are a concern in either setting. Dealing with them appropriately is an ongoing learning process that requires flexibility and focus. To get the best result for everyone, there must be an understanding of natural consequences for actions. Programming that is age and ability appropriate is also necessary. And how exactly do we measure and accommodate ability level? One approach may not be better than another, as in dealing with any group of young people, but there are common pitfalls that can be avoided to speed and improve the process.
A major part of the transition to adulthood is an understanding of cause and effect relationships to people around us. There is a critical time during adolescence, (similar to when we are toddlers), when we struggle between the desire to express our independence of thought and our realization that other people are affected by our actions. Learning any new skill is a bumpy road, and just as the beginning snow skier or roller skater must nurse some bruises and scrapes, so must adolescents learning their way.
In behavior management, we place that bumpy learning curve under the "natural consequences" umbrella. The term may more often he applied to young children, but both disabled and non-disabled adolescents are prime subjects for the technique. For those not familiar with the definition, natural consequences deals with letting someone experience the result of their behavior to better understand why it is inappropriate, provided that the result is not morally or physically harmful. The concept sounds easy: You don't let a 2-year-old use a fork on the wall socket, but let her throw her toys out of the bathtub so she realizes that as a result they stay on the floor out of reach. You let the a-year-old have cookies for lunch, but then he must deal with his stomach ache. But how do we apply this to adolescents with developmental disabilities?
Since a teen with or without a disability is much like a toddler learning what works and what doesn't, it's often better to let him or her experience his OF her own natural consequences rather than manually steer them away from an undesired behavior. In a mixed ability setting, let's say Billy is sticking his tongue out at some non-disabled friends. Rather than take Billy aside to explain why this is gross and inappropriate, we can stand back and see, along with Billy, what the natural consequences are. When the kids he was teasing don't include him in the next activity ,he will begin to see that sticking out his tongue doesn't get him what he wanted. However, this is a mild example.
Let's take a look at Jenna, who in our program, made a habit out of grabbing another participant's arm. Jenna was not causing her friend any pain, but the behavior was irritating. …