By Arlyn Roffman, Ph.D.
For teens and young adults with learning disabilities (LD) or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD), having a disability is more than an academic matter. The effects of these disorders regularly spill into life beyond the classroom — at home, at work, and in the community. Whether heading off to college or to employment, all young people must develop an array of community living skills to successfully adjust to adult life. These daily living skills fall into six areas:
Unfortunately, many teens and young adults with LD and AD/HD find it difficult to acquire these skills. Some of these difficulties derive from the LD itself; others stem from environmental factors, such as an overly protective parenting style. However, with awareness of the potential for difficulties, instruction in the areas of challenge, and careful planning, youth with LD and/or AD/HD can acquire needed skills and move successfully into independent life.
A variety of studies suggest that young adults with LD and/or AD/HD participate less in community life and remain reliant upon their parents long after their peers have achieved independence. One major research study, the National Transition Longitudinal Study-I (Wagner et al., 1991), investigated 8,000 special education students in grades seven and higher as they moved through the next several years in terms of their engagement in work or school, residency outside their parents' home, and social activities. Only 27% of those with learning disabilities were found to be independent in all three domains, and only 50% were independent even in two when they were 3-5 years out of high school. Data from the second round of the National Transition Longitudinal Study (NTLS2) are gradually being released and will continue in the coming years to paint a picture of the transition process for youth with LD and/or AD/HD.
The trend toward extended dependence upon parents may be attributed in part to the tendency for parents of youth with LD and AD/HD to assume too much responsibility for scheduling and arranging their children's lives well into the adolescent years and beyond. Although these parents mean well, their overprotectiveness contributes to a "learned helplessness" (Seligman, 1975) that limits their children's growth. When kids have few chances for decision-making, they miss out on the opportunity to learn from failure, and are unable to develop the self-determination and skills needed to plan and fend for themselves.
Like their non-disabled peers, most teens with LD and AD/HD eagerly anticipate a more independent life beyond the high school years. They benefit from opportunities to learn and demonstrate new skills and independent decision-making. The following case histories describe two young women with LD, both 19 years of age and high school graduates, both scoring similarly on measures of intelligence, and illustrate how different parenting styles can help or hinder a teen's development of daily living skills:
Denied the opportunity to blossom, the second young woman was caught in the stranglehold of dependence. As soon as she had the opportunity to learn daily living skills, she grew enormously; clearly, she had been ready to move forward toward an independent adult life. Her major constraint had been not the learning disability itself but the attitude of her parents, who had cultivated a prolonged dependence. In contrast, the first young woman had been eased along with both high expectations and a great deal of support from her parents and had developed a number of skills that would serve her well as she left home and began life in an apartment.
Even young adults with LD and/or AD/HD who have supportive parents experience challenges in daily living, often directly related to the specific characteristics of their disability. Their challenges continue to ebb and flow throughout their adult years. Consider these examples:
If challenges in daily living are predictable and persistent as youth with LD and AD/HD move out of their family homes into the community, why don't schools include more life skills goals in students' transition planning? Middle and high school students with LD and AD/HD would clearly benefit from direct instruction in such practical daily living skills as housekeeping and money management. However, in these days of high-stakes testing, schools tend to be reluctant to commit valuable teaching time to these less academic — though certainly not less essential — areas.
What are the specific challenges teens with LD and AD/HD face as they move into life beyond the care of their parents, particularly in terms of meal preparation, money management, housekeeping, self-care, leisure planning, and getting around (transportation)? And what can parents do to help them prepare for this major transition? The next articles in this series will focus on essential life skills needed for successful transition to an independent life and will suggest strategies parents can use during their children's middle and high school years to ease them toward that goal.