By: Waverly Ann Harris
One of our favorite sayings at Friends Life Community, particularly in trainings, is “Don’t over think it.” It is easy to get caught up in the pressure of wanting everything to be perfect, particularly in relationships or when you are supporting someone you care about. You can take almost any situation and find that simplicity is usually the best approach.
Many people have heard the words “natural reinforcements” or “natural supports.” Natural supports are commonly referred to in employment settings. It really just means trying to utilize resources that occur naturally. Sometimes they are so “natural” that we forget how to leverage these resources to set up systems that work well for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD).
To become more independent at home, it is important for a person to understand consequences. As parents and even educators, it is easy to feel like we need to respond to unexpected behavior with a reprimand or by fixing the problem at hand. We often feel like we need to teach a lesson in these situations. Many times this comes from wanting to protect the person and keep them from experiencing worse consequences. The problem is that this often comes across as a punishment, and is usually not age-appropriate.
As adults, we all make mistakes and have to learn from those mistakes with natural consequences. If we are late paying a bill, we risk having the service shut down or paying a higher fine. If we are distracted and leave dinner in the oven for too long, we risk not having anything to eat. If we wait too long to do laundry, we risk having someone tell us that we smell bad or not having clothes to wear. These are all “natural consequences” and are important for any adult to experience. This is how we all learn and it shapes our behaviors going forward.
Natural supports are interpersonal and tangible resources that are used to support a person to be more independent. In the context of living more independently at home, this could include people such as a roommate that has complimentary skills, technology that provides prompts and security, visual checklists and planners, rituals and routines, and other systems that we encounter on a daily basis.
Housemates, whether family members, a caregiver, or peers, can either increase or decrease independence. Choosing the right environment to promote independence includes the other people in the house. For example, it is natural for any parent to do more for their child than any other person would. This can build up dependencies that keep an individual from having to take responsibility. How many of us graduated from high school without knowing how to do laundry or had to teach our roommate how to do laundry? Colleagues working in residential settings have many success stories of individuals with IDD becoming much more independent at home once they moved out of their parents’ home. A natural support through a housemate might look like one person who enjoys cooking and is safe in the kitchen and another person who is an extreme rule follower and knows not to open doors for strangers or go outside after dark.
Technology is becoming a main component to independent living. There are companies like Simply Home that specialize in helping individuals set up a comprehensive home environment that will allow them to live safely and independently. Many families are using smart home technologies that have been adapted to individualized needs. There are examples listed below. These smart home technologies set automatic prompts and increase accessibility, making it easier for individuals with mobility and Executive Function challenges to achieve their daily activities:
Smart Light Bulbs – these allow a person to change the color of the lights, to dim the lights, to turn them off and on by using an app on the phone. It can also be programmed to turn a certain color at the same time every day, therefore, it could be used to cue a person to get up in the morning so that they are not late for work, or when to brush their teeth and go to bed.
Echo Show – this is an Amazon/Alexa product that can be used to video chat as well. A person can use this to call family members and family members can use this to get in touch with a person and to see their face in order to make sure they are safe and well.
Smart Plugs – these can be used to program outlets to turn on or off. They can be controlled through an app by the individual for accessibility, or by a family member for safety.
Induction stove tops – these will cook food but will not get hot to the touch.
When using technology as a natural support, safety is a priority. You should also think about how to use technology to automate cues and prompts to help a person follow a routine. Think about all the prompts a person usually gets verbally, and try to replace them with a non-verbal cue using technology.
Increasing opportunities to live independently can be scary. The “what if…” scenarios often prevent greater independence. Sometimes it is helpful to think about all the potential risks and work backwards. What if there is a fire? What technology could be put in place to notify emergency responders and a neighbor of smoke, and what process should be practiced so that the individual is prepared for that scenario? What if there is a stranger at the door? Would a video door bell help? Who would receive the notification of someone at the door? If it is a parent or sibling, how would they instruct the individual living in the home? Who are the people living around the individual who could serve as natural supports? What if the individual does not get up in time for work and they are late to their job? If the employer holds them accountable, how often will that happen?
There will always be risks and it is impossible to live a full life without taking risks. Individuals with IDD have many successes and often exceed the expectations that are placed on them. Don’t over think it. When coaching and mentoring an adult to become more independent, think about the natural resources that will teach them the same way everyone else learned, often through failure, and will support them, the same way we have all succeeded, through a strong support system.