• New Life Staff

How Special Needs Affects the Family


Living with any sort of disability, whether it’s developmental, intellectual, or physical, comes with it’s own complex challenges and obstacles to overcome. In the world of therapy treatment and medicine, I think we tend to overlook many of the unique challenges that come specifically with the role of caregiver of someone with special needs--whether a parent or family member.


From the moment the diagnosis is delivered, whether that be prior to birth, at birth, or years later, it feels like a rollercoaster of emotions for everyone involved. It is as though you are glued to this new label of Autism, Down syndrome, or whatever disorder or disability for life, and that news itself can create a lot of fear. Being a parent, I can imagine there is a lot of anxiety swirling around, triggering the unending questions of how you’re going to best care for your child that has to deal with these special needs. The job of a parent is already hard work - but raising a child with special needs adds more stress and requires a higher level of care. Being in this new role is confusing and comes with lots of questions, typically with no real answers, such as...how am I going to emotionally, and even financially, support my child for the rest of their life, how do I set them up for success and ensure their happiness? What will their education look like, and will it be different than my other children’s? What about treatment options...what doctors do we need to start seeing? The list goes on and on, and as your child gets older, new challenges arise.


For families that care for an individual with special needs, the future is typically unknown, and I have learned it can be such an isolating situation. Whether you yourself have special needs, your brother or sister has special needs, or you’re the caretaker of someone with special needs, I see you.


This journey supporting a special needs person is difficult at times and also so rewarding! I may not know exactly what you go through on a daily basis or how it’s specifically affected your family, but I know that it has, probably in profound ways! It shifts the dynamic in your family. Dr. Murray Bowen describes the nuclear family as an emotional unit. When something affects one person in the family, it affects everyone else; anxiety moves throughout the system. The individual with these difficulties may become the “focused” child, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does affect the environment that the other siblings grow up in and the roles they may take on. These families overcome a lot of adversity in caring for a loved one with special needs!


When working with this particular population, linear, individual thinking is quite pervasive. In the special education system and many popular forms of treatment, the process for defining a child’s problem is based on a medical model, which typically increases anxiety in the system and the intensity of the focus on the child. I work with this population differently, in that I zoom out and look at the whole system, becoming aware of the relationship patterns and roles that have been developed over time and of the movement of anxiety throughout the system. Every family is different.


If you would like to further explore or gain a greater understanding of how special needs affects your whole family system, whether you’re a parent, an individual with special needs, a sibling, or any sort of caretaker, I would feel honored to hear your story and support you through the counseling process!


Feel free to reach out anytime,

Payton Sparks, MA

Licensed Professional Counselor-Intern #82679

Supervised by Leah McDill, Ph.D., Licensed Professional Counselor Supervisor: #13143

Office Phone: 512-238-1700 ext. 314

Work Cell: 512-666-4298

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