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Parenting can be isolating. Parenting can be exhausting. Everybody needs a break. Everybody needs to reconnect.
Whether it’s because of stress, errands you have to run, a need to brush up on adult-speak, or the realization that you now speak to your partner in a falsetto normally reserved for the toddler, babysitters are an essential part of parenting.
My younger daughter, Lily, is autistic. The problem for me and other parents of autistic children is that, in many cases, the neighborhood kid who’s otherwise a good fit as a babysitter isn’t qualified to handle the needs of an autistic child. It’s not fair to the kid, nor, frankly, to the babysitter. Things like self-injurious behaviors, meltdowns, or aggression can disqualify even an older teen from babysitting. Things like limited or nonverbal communication can raise trust issues that might bump an otherwise qualified sitter from consideration because of a lack of parental comfort.
It can be extremely difficult to find someone who hits the magic trifecta of trust, competence, and availability. Finding a good babysitter ranks right up there with finding a good doctor. Here are some suggestions on where to look for a date-night resource, or just for a little respite.
The first place — and, arguably, the easiest — most special needs parents look to is within their own families and friend groups. Trust them? Absolutely! And they work cheap! But as grandparents age, or aunts and uncles move away, it can be difficult for parents to tap into that existing network. Additionally, you might get the sense (whether rightly or wrongly) that you are “imposing.” But, honestly, if you had abundant resources for your child care needs, you wouldn’t be reading this post anyway.
School aides who already work with your child and are familiar with their needs may be willing to earn a little money on the side. With longtime dedicated aides, a comfort level, and even friendship, can develop that makes asking about a babysitting gig less daunting. My daughter’s longtime dedicated aide once watched her over the summer. She was even pretty affordable, considering all she did for Lily. At that point, it was a labor of love and she was practically family.
Lily gets “wraparound services” (therapy outside of the school setting) for speech through a local college. In many cases, these sorts of services are overseen by a clinician, but the “grunt work” is handled by college kids going to school to become therapists themselves. College kids always need money — I’ve tapped into at least two budding speech therapists to watch Lily so I can go to dinner or drinks with friends. They know Lily, they understand her needs, and there’s a comfort level between them from long hours working together.
As you develop your social media tribe and participate in groups for people in similar situations, you can harness the power of social media to solicit suggestions, or even post “help wanted” requests to people who “get it” and might know someone. Maybe you’re missing some simple benefit or possible resource. The hive mind can set you straight.
Often through school or therapy, parents will get referred to special needs summer camps. People who have already developed a relationship with your child at these summer camps could be approached for work on the side. In some cases, these people are volunteers, often having a loved one of their own with special needs. Their genuine desire to work with our kids and the experience they’ve gained from supporting the camp makes them good options for babysitting.
This is a win-win. Students studying for a career in special education are definitely receptive to a little on-the-job training. Take advantage of their need for beer and pizza money while allowing them to get a little resume-building, real-life experience. Often, colleges will post help wanted requests online. Alternatively, you could approach department heads about possible candidates.
Parents of special needs kids with access to an inclusive church program can approach teachers or assistants in those programs for babysitting opportunities or suggestions.
If you’re still stuck, care sites like Care.com, Urbansitter, and Sittercity list babysitters who offer their services. The sites typically have a list specifically for special needs caregivers. You can interview them and find someone who seems like a good fit for your family. Sometimes, you have to become a member to utilize a site’s services, but that seems like a small price to pay for a much-needed break.
Even tapping into all of the above, it can still be difficult to find someone who is reliable, affordable, trustworthy, and capable of handling your child’s unique challenges … and also available when needed. And special needs parents who find someone they can trust have to build in backup plans and fallback options for the days when their favorite sitter isn’t free.
If you feel like taking a chance on the neighborhood kid once you’ve thoroughly explained how this job differs from “the usual,” then by all means, give them a try. (But special needs parents might consider installing a nanny cam for extra peace of mind … like I did.)
Jim Walter is the author of Just a Lil Blog, where he chronicles his adventures as a single dad of two daughters, one of whom is autistic. You can follow him on Twitter at @blogginglily.