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Declaration of independence: Developing life skills for teens with LD

An expert outlines the skills your teenager with LD and/or AD/HD must develop to function as an independent adult, and how you can help.

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:

  • meal preparation
  • money management
  • housekeeping
  • self-care (e.g., hygiene, medical care)
  • planning leisure time and activities
  • getting around (transportation)

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.

What the research says

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.

Arlyn Roffman, Ph.D., an expert on transition issues in special education, is a Professor at Lesley University, where she served as founding director of Threshold, a transition program for young adults with learning disabilities, from 1981 to 1996. She has served on the professional advisory boards of several national LD organizations and maintains a private practice in psychology.