Childwise: Parenting Special Needs Children

shawn lauren brooks
Lauren and Shawn with Brooks Orpik from the Pittsburgh Penguins

By Kathleen Ganster

While it is often touted as the most rewarding job in the world, there is no doubt about it, parenting can often be challenging.

For parents of special needs children, this job can be much more challenging.

Kristin Liberato-Gallagher is the Family Support Coordinator for the Autism Center of Pittsburgh, but more importantly, she is the mother of three special needs children.

“It is a challenge every day and sometimes, you feel like there just aren’t any breaks,” she said.

Liberato-Gallagher knew something was wrong with her daughter, Lauren, now 10, when she was about 14 months old. After months of going to various doctors and Lauren undergoing tests, she was diagnosed with autism.

“I immediately thought of ‘Rainman.’ Then I thought of a girl at a residential home where I used to work. All she did was sit there and rock back and forth,” said Liberato-Gallagher, “I was afraid that would be my child.”

kristin work photo
Kristin Liberato-Gallagher

Her son, Evan, 9, was diagnosed younger, but he has severe autism and now lives in a residential home environment.

Shawn, 11, wasn’t diagnosed until he was 8.

“I thought, ‘God, please don’t make me go through this again,’” said Liberato-Gallagher. Shawn has Asperger’s syndrome, a type of autism.

Both Lauren and Shawn attend public schools with support services.

“We have to plan everything out. They really can’t do typical things like place a sport, go to dance classes or join a scout troop,” she said, “They are too socially backwards.”

From her own personal experience, Liberato-Gallagher feels she can better assist the parents who seek help at the Center.

“I know what they are talking about when they tell me they don’t know if they can hold on,” she said.

To help her balance her life, Liberato-Gallagher, said she “laughs a lot” and gets out when ever she can – even if it means just to the grocery store. That is advice she gives to other parents of special needs children.

“It’s hard because there aren’t a lot of respite services – but they need to try to find a sitter or rely on friends and family,” she said.

Locating support services including support groups is also imperative for these parents, according to Liberator-Gallagher.

“I tell parents to reach out to centers such as ours and services that can help them,” she said, “Support groups help parents know they aren’t alone.”

In her role with the Center, Liberato-Gallagher helps parents find additional service.

An outlet for Liberato-Gallagher and her children is their ice-hockey teams with the Steel City Icebergs, an ice hockey group for children with special needs.

“When one of the kids has a meltdown on the ice, we just keep talking in the stands,” she explained, “It doesn’t faze us because we have all been there.”

Like other parents in similar situations, Liberato-Gallagher said sometimes, the pressure of parenting does get tough.

“But I always try to live by my grandmother’s words – ‘Your life isn’t as bad as some others.’ I have a friend with four special needs children,” she said, “Besides my job keeps me in check.”

The number one piece of advice she has for other parents, is planning.

“Don’t wait until your child is 25 and your own health is deteriorating,” she said, “Plan early. Set up a trust fund – do what you need to do.”


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