Blending memoir with self-help, Laughing Allegra is the remarkably honest and inspiring story about the struggle and triumph of raising a child with learning disabilities, written by Anne Ford, the great-granddaughter of Henry Ford and the Chairman Emeritus of the National Center for Learning Disabilities.
Anne Ford explains, “Laughing Allegra is the book I could not find when my daughter was diagnosed with multiple severe learning disabilities. I call it a ‘guide to the heart,’ for it is intended to inspire parents, to show them they are not alone and that we all — as parents of children with learning disabilities — share the same language of hope.”
We’d like to share with you an excerpt from the book, a chapter entitled, “On Their Own — Challenges of Life,” in which the author describes her hopes and fears as Allegra transitions from childhood to independent adulthood.
On their own: challenges of life
I would have loved to give Allegra a party when she turned twenty-one, not only to celebrate her entry into adulthood but also to celebrate her passing successfully through all the difficulties of a childhood with learning disabilities. At the party we would have raised our glasses and said, “Well done, Allegra. It’s over now, you have left all your problems behind.” But as always with LD, such dreams are only dreams: The reality is that learning disabilities are never cured. They are lifelong challenges. For adults with LD there is comfort in knowing that the often-tortured days of school and homework are over, but now they are faced with new, sometimes greater challenges involving work, independent living, transportation, and relationships.
Parents of young men and women with LD may find the transitional period from childhood to independent adulthood a time filled with concern. The parents were always there for the child, able to protect them from those who did not understand. Now, as the young adult moves out of the house and maybe to a different city, worries flood in upon those left behind. How will they get by? How will they get around? Will they live a happy life? Will they meet someone special in their life? Will they get married? Can they get married?
I have had every one of these concerns. I have heard every one of them from other parents.
They begin when the child is very young, as questions in the back of the mind. “I wonder how it will be?” they ask themselves, but the child is still a child. Those concerns can wait. Then the child becomes a teenager, and the future is bearing down. Soon the child is a young adult ready to leave the nest. For the parent, there is no escape. Concerns are now realities, and for many, this is the first time they feel utterly helpless. What was once seen as welcome protection by the child with LD, may now be seen as intrusion. What was once advice, may now be considered nagging. Parents often feel helpless when they hear their adult child talk of difficulties at work or in a relationship. They want to help, they know they can help, but they also realize that their help may actually be harmful — there is a lot to be said for allowing people to learn how to handle problems on their own. At the same time, it is extremely difficult to stand by and watch someone in distress, knowing you have the power to change the situation by reaching out with information or a helping hand.
I still struggle with this on a daily basis. Should I intervene in Allegra’s personal life? What is the appropriate amount of help? Am I going beyond simple advice, or am I doing too much, thereby preventing her from learning to handle day to day problems?
Each situation calls for a realistic assessment of how much the parent should do. The level of disability must also be considered. Some adults with mild learning disabilities may need no help or guidance at all. Others like Allegra may need much more outside help.
I have discovered through both observation and research that there are certain basic elements involved with so many issues faced by adults with LD. They are threads woven through a life, sometimes prominent, other times hidden below the surface; but one or more of them seem to find their way into every difficult situation.
- Impulsivity. By this I do not mean the occasional spontaneous purchase or decision to go to the movies, but a constant inability to gauge the effects of an action taken. For instance, many people with difficulties in math may never really know how much money they have in their bank account, yet will continue to buy things at the spur of the moment, mindless of the detrimental effect on their personal finances. Allegra recently booked two nights in a hotel where she would only be staying for one night. She didn’t do this because she is a reckless spendthrift, but because the hotel said they only book a two-night minimum stay. Instead of looking for another hotel, Allegra impulsively agreed to the terms. Consequences are often overlooked or never considered at all.
- Time management is another challenge. An inability to judge the time it will take to get from one place to another or when to pay bills or when to meet a friend, can lead to endless difficulties. We all have situations where we are late for an event, but many people with LD have a chronic inability to show up on time. Sometimes this is a matter of organizational difficulties, other times they simply “forget” they were supposed to be somewhere.
- Lack of judgment is another thread that runs through many lives of adults with LD. By this I mean an apparent inability to understand the reality of certain situations; for instance, whether a friend is really a friend or simply an acquaintance, or if the person is actually someone who may be harmful.
- Openness and honesty. The last and most important thread is also the most positive. It is not something that comes automatically with LD. Being forthright about learning disabilities can be the key to solving so many of the difficulties presented by the threads of impulsivity, time management, and lack of judgment. Nearly every problem can be alleviated if the person without LD is made aware of the learning disability. Instead of being irritated, they will usually go out of their way to be accommodating. Instead of growing distant from a friend who constantly shows up late, they will make allowances and even help come up with ways to improve the situation.
With this in mind, I offer lessons I have learned about how parents and their young adult children can learn to deal with the challenges of life. The next four chapters address how these challenges affect the ability of the adult with LD to get around by car or public transportation, manage finances, gain employment, and create and maintain healthy relationships.