Tips for Teaching Kids with Special Needs about Money

Saving for something you want, staying on a budget, and earning your own money are just some of the financial skills that all kids need to learn. If you are the parent of a child with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), Down Syndrome, or another developmental or cognitive delay or disability, teaching these lessons presents added challenges. Yet they’re super-important if you want your kid to be able to someday go grocery shopping, open a bank account, or rent an apartment. Kids with Special Needs MoneyEven if your child may never be able to live entirely on his own, the sense of self-worth that comes from basic money management can be life-changing. For many with special needs, an independent financial life is within grasp, if you start preparing your kid early.

“Since money is a conceptual idea, it may be a particularly difficult skill to teach children diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder or other special need,” said Jenny Krones, a board certified behavior analyst based in Austin. She spent more than 10 years working with clients with special needs before launching the app development company Touch Autism with her computer programmer husband. “Kids with ASDs are sometimes referred to as ‘concrete thinkers’ because conceptual ideas are so hard to grasp, while the literal here-and-now comes more easily.”

The good news is, parents can apply a lot of the methods they use for teaching kids other skills to money. “If at all possible, keep it real, relevant, and hands-on,” suggested Brian Page, a business education teacher at Reading High School in Ohio who has helped to develop a personal finance curriculum for students with special needs. Obviously, the extent to which you can apply the tips below depends on your kid’s capabilities, but even kids with fairly big challenges can master some of these skills.

Start early

While it may be tempting to parents of kids with special needs to put off financial lessons when there seem to be more pressing challenges, you really should begin when they’re young. “Start talking about money and what you are doing as soon as they’ve got language,” suggested Jerry Webster, who teaches kids with autism in third through sixth grades in California’s Coachella Valley and has taught and written about children with special needs for a dozen years. Modeling good money behavior is important. Simply narrating your actions as you buy groceries or pay bills will start the wheels turning for your kid.

Practice coin identification

Coin identification is a basic skill that all children should work on from the time they are three or four. It is especially important for kids with special needs because it can help build math skills as well as money experience that can translate to making a purchase. Use real coins, not toy ones, said Webster—otherwise you’re layering in an extra level of abstraction. They’ll be ready for their own money when they can ask for the change in your pocket and count it correctly, Webster said.

Use social stories

A tool developed by autism education consultant Carol Gray in the early 1990s, social stories break down a task or social situation into discrete, easy-to-understand steps, often accompanied by illustrations. You might share a social story, for example, about how fun it is to go to the store, the entertaining things to do at a store besides buying, and how to constructively handle the feelings of frustration when it isn’t time to get something for yourself. One of Touch Autism’s free apps helps parents to create personalized social stories for their kids.

Make it into a game

Victoria Golden, the program director of a Chicago-based company called Brain Arts Productions that uses creative arts to teach financial literacy, has observed that kids with special needs respond well to interactive games, particularly role-playing. “Being able to jump into characters is good for driving home really deep lessons,” Golden said. Playing a variation of “store” may help a kid to grasp the concept of exchange, for example. Play the storekeeper, and have your kid be the customer. Then switch roles.

Repetition is key

While it’s important to go over lessons multiple times with all kids, it’s especially crucial for kids with special needs. Golden cites the example of Owen Suskind, a nonverbal boy with autism who was able to learn language and relate to his family by watching Disney movies like Aladdin and The Lion King over and over again. It may feel tedious to do coin identification exercises repeatedly, for instance, but the rewards can be huge once your kid gets it.

Recognize your kid’s limitations

Sometimes “good-enough” strategies can help children with special needs succeed. If your kid has trouble making change, for example, you can teach the “dollar over” or “next dollar” method of paying for something. Your kid gives the clerk at the register one dollar more than the amount in the price—so if it’s $1.89, your kid gives $2. And let your kid know that it’s OK to take his time at the checkout, even if that means letting someone else go first. You get the idea.

Help your kid learn to make transactions in a store

A key to helping your kid “get” money is to let her handle money of her own, rather than do everything for her. At first, suggested Webster, simply give your kid money to hand to the cashier. Next, you can graduate to standing back while she makes a purchase under your supervision. Eventually, you’ll be ready to let your kid go to the store on her own (perhaps with you trailing behind, at first, and after first ensuring that your kid has pedestrian safety skills).

Help your kid get a job

Both Webster and Page advise helping your older child with special needs to get a part-time job if possible. You can lay the groundwork for your kid to earn a paycheck by giving them a bonus for chores that build on important life skills such as picking up their toys (for younger kids) and doing their own laundry (for older ones), suggested Ernst Van Bergeijk and Paul Cavanagh, in the magazine The Exceptional Parent. Both are leaders of residential, college-based transition programs for young adults with learning differences and Autism spectrum diagnoses. At the same time, you can expect your kids to do some basic chores, like taking out the trash, without payment, since that’s part of being in the family. For older kids, volunteering can also prepare the way for a job. Once it’s time to earn money, bagging groceries, sorting clothes at a secondhand store, or taking tickets at a movie theater may be possibilities for your kid. Some companies make a point of hiring people with physical and cognitive or developmental challenges, so do a little research about what’s available in your area.

The urge to protect a child with special needs is understandable, but your kid will only learn if you give him or her some autonomy. “When parents try to protect and hover over children, what they’re doing is making them more vulnerable,” said Webster. Though you’ll have to teach your kid to trust their instincts if they feel someone is trying to exploit them, the flip side is that many people will be willing to help out. The person in the checkout line behind your kid, for instance, will probably keep the clerk honest. By teaching your kid to understand and handle money on his or her own, you’re giving the enormous gift of a more independent future.