Supporting Military Families with Young Children
Dee Bosworth is a military spouse and mother of a twice exceptional child. Married for twelve years to an Active Duty Sailor, Dee was a Navy Command Ombudsman for six years, cumulatively. As an American Military Families Autism Support Community Leader and Florida Partners in Policymaking graduate, Dee is active in local, state, and national programs for persons with disabilities. Driven by the experiences of military families like her own, Dee is passionate about empowering military parents to advocate for a better world for our loved ones with exceptional needs. At home, she is mom, teacher, and telehealth therapy facilitator. In her work capacity, Dee supports individuals with disabilities and their families as a STOMP, Specialized Training of Military Parents Parent Instructor and Helpline Coordinator for Washington State’s parent and information center, PAVE.
1. What do you remember most about your experiences with early intervention while in the military?
The screening for early intervention services was the first step in our journey to a diagnosis and supports. Stationed across the country from our closest family, I had caring friends who supported us through the early days, but I was hesitant to rely too heavily on them when I saw so many families with young children thriving. Not only were their children typically developing, but they also had two or more adults to manage family needs. The infant and toddler developmental specialist assigned to our case helped me with practical tips that I could easily implement with or without my servicemember home, like how to use play for education and teaching skills; maintaining high expectations and community-based resources to assist us in overcoming obstacles; and connecting with resources for parent support and training. She was the first service provider of many to truly listen to my concerns, look beyond the splinter skills of our twice exceptional child, and identify strategies to teach delayed skills.
2. What skills did you gain during your child’s early years that influence you currently?
One of the most important things I learned and still do is narrate everything! When he was younger, it was a matter of helping our child to learn functional communication skills. I talked him through everything I did and labeled the world around me to build his vocabulary. His team of providers and I pointed out emotions in books and on the faces of his favorite toys, imitated and practiced tones of voice, and verbally analyzed expressions to help develop an awareness of others and unspoken social cues. Within a year of starting early intervention, our son was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder and I was told he had a very large, quality vocabulary. We used regular words to talk to him rather than “baby talk” or cutesy words. We also read a lot of books together. In fact, his dad recorded himself reading to our son during deployment through a program called United Through Reading, and I played those recordings all the time. In recent years, his speech therapist has also encouraged us to narrate our “wonderings” and some of those impressions that we wouldn’t usually express aloud to help him differentiate between thoughts we should share or act on, and those we should keep to ourselves.
3. Is there anything you would like to share with other military families about your experiences?
We are not alone. Our branches of service, servicemembers’ rates, and children’s diagnoses set us apart. Yet, we are a community together. Every day, our military children are exceptional! They are not only exceptional family members in the Department of Defense Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP), but they are also children doing their best to learn, grow, and rise to our lovingly high expectations for them, despite exceptional obstacles from the military lifestyle and their disabilities. Parents, you are exceptional too. Just as your children belong to both military and disability communities, so do you belong to military and caregiver communities. Remember that you are not alone in your support and struggles. Those who sit across the table from you for Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP) and Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings went into their career with a desire to educate and develop young learners. They are trying to help your child, even if they see the problem and the solution from a different perspective. Build relationships whenever possible and separate the problems from the people involved in them, so your network grows and you have more people on your child’s side to tackle the heart of the issues.
4. What would you like the professionals who worked with you during the early years to know about military families?
Military families with exceptional needs face unique challenges that can feel isolating from both the disability and military communities. We have the challenges caused by the exceptional needs: navigating diagnosis with insurance and medical systems; identifying and obtaining services; traversing the special education system and related services; monitoring and managing regression and progression; teaching and reteaching skills that their peers seemed to have acquired without effort; and so much parent training that we feel like we should have certificates for all the therapies our children receive. We also experience military-connected hardships: deployments and long separations; frequent and unexplained changes in schedule; last minute notification of mobilizations and/or relocations; limited to no communication with co-parents; and restrictions on what we can discuss for the safety of our servicemembers. Those combined experiences can leave us feeling isolated. Civilians encountering some of these challenges might reach out to family, but we are an island living hours and days from our relatives who are unfamiliar with our way of life. Opportunities to connect with other families of young children with special needs are as crucial for the parents as they are for the children.
Identifying the various community, county, and state programs available to our family was challenging, despite intentionally researching and networking. The structure, organization, and scope of nationally funded programs in our current state are not an exact replica of what we knew in our home state. Learning about supports and services took researching both military and civilian supports separately because they do not intersect enough to create a reciprocal or symbiotic partnership. Most highly mobile families simply do not have the time in a single state to do that kind of research and connect with programs before they are uprooted and begin again in a new location. When civilian and military programs collaborate, the families served by both can more easily connect with necessary resources.
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