Support for military families with special needs

Over 200,000 active-duty and Reserve Service Members have a family member with special needs. And while that might mean tackling a unique set of family challenges through your military service, problem-solving together can make your family stronger and more resilient. If you have a child with special needs, the good news is that military families have access to special support and services too.

Special needs families include a loved one who has been diagnosed with one or more different physical, emotional, or learning abilities. For example, the DoD considers certain medical conditions, autism spectrum disorders, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), asthma, developmental delays, hearing or vision problems, behavioral or mental health disorders, and speech and language disorders as special needs. While every family is unique in the specific challenges their child or family member might face, the task of facing those challenges while navigating military life is fairly consistent.

Deployments, separations, and PCSing for families with special needs

Relocations and separations are simply a hallmark of family life. And while it can be hard for anyone to adjust through a PCS or deployment, families with special needs have a lot to consider. When it comes to moving, many military families have to plan for the medical, educational, or therapeutic services their family member receives to be interrupted and re-established at a new location. They might have to look for new care providers, advocate for their child to get into the proper programs at their new school (keep in mind an Individualized Education Program [IEP] doesn’t apply across state lines), and find other programs as needed.

It might not always be easy to find the right care providers in all locations, particularly overseas. Many military families also report that even when they receive care at local installations, the quality of care can be inconsistent when they move. There can even be major delays (1–3 months in some cases) in getting the referrals and starting the care their family member needs after a relocation. All of this can be made even more difficult without the social support of family and friends nearby.

Over time, many parents of children with special needs feel highly satisfied in their parenting role, show resilience, and are highly adaptable. With the right support and resources in place, you can feel the same way.

When it comes to deployment or other types of separations, there are special challenges too. A child with special needs might have a much tougher time adjusting to a family member’s absence. It might also be particularly difficult to keep up with routines and schedules alone, and those changes might also be hard for a family member with special needs to cope with. The home front parent might also experience isolation or loneliness having to maintain family life and navigate services on their own.

Resilience strategies for special needs families

In general, military parents of children with special needs tend to report more challenges coping with job demands and having more pessimistic attitudes towards their military careers. Parental stress can actually impact your child’s symptoms as well, so it can be easy to get into a negative cycle (or downward spiral). That’s why finding support and accessing resources for your family is a key part of optimizing your performance on duty. When you feel you have the support you need at home, you’ll be better able to stave off chronic stress and stay focused on your duties and the mission.

Over time, many parents of children with special needs feel highly satisfied in their parenting role, show resilience, and are highly adaptable. With the right support and resources in place, you can feel the same way.

  • Access military programs. There are dozens of different options for support within your military networks. Explore your Family-to-Family Health Information Center to connect with other families and support groups. Enroll in the military’s own Exceptional Family Member Program to connect with a coordinator who can help you figure out what programs and services are available as well. Keep in mind that Tricare also offers respite care, so you can take some time to take care of yourself too.
  • Boost your coping strategies. Families who focus on effective parenting, stress management (or stress optimization), and problem-solving are best able to adapt to the needs of their family member. There are many different ways to develop your coping arsenal, and doing so can help you manage the extra demands life throws your way.
  • Build family cohesion. It’s important to focus on building family unity. It can be easy to sometimes feel like one person or issue is to blame when you’re struggling, and it can be even harder to prevent certain issues from taking over all of your relationships. But the reality is that your dynamic as a family unit matters most. Focus on building those healthy family relationships through effective communication and emotional regulation—and don’t forget to have some fun.
  • Get the facts. Gathering information is one of the top ways military families with special needs adapt to and deal with the challenges they face. Take the time to talk to all your child’s providers and understand as much as you can about the issues they might be facing and what it might mean for their future. Also, look locally or online for support groups to find other parents or families who have been through it already. Learning from the experiences of others can be extremely powerful.

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Aronson, K. R., Kyler, S. J., Moeller, J. D., & Perkins, D. F. (2016). Understanding military families who have dependents with special health care and/or educational needs. Disability and Health Journal, 9(3), 423–430. doi:10.1016/j.dhjo.2016.03.002

Davis, J. M., & Finke, E. H. (2015). The experience of military families with children with autism spectrum disorders during relocation and separation. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 45(7), 2019–2034. doi:10.1007/s10803-015-2364-2

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