Life After High School: Helping Your Adolescent with Learning Disabilities and/or ADHD Transition to Adulthood
Whether going on to post-secondary education or focusing on employment, adulthood brings with it many transitions. While many of these transitions are exciting, even positive change brings about a certain level of stress. It can be particularly challenging when considering the heightened risks faced by those with LD/ADHD in adulthood:
- Increased rates of anxiety and depression
- Substance misuse
- Risky behaviour
- Difficulties in interpersonal relationships
- Increased school failure and dropout
- Fewer employment opportunities and more frequent job changes.
Of course, individuals with LD/ADHD are a diverse group who experience a variety of outcomes. Many experience great success, whereas others, unfortunately, do not. Fortunately, several factors have been identified as important for a successful transition. Self-advocacy and a strong support network have been identified as particularly important. The following are some key considerations for parents when bridging the gap between adolescence and adulthood:
1. Discuss the differences between high school and post-secondary/work life
To be proactive, it is advised to have discussions with your child around the differences between high school and post-secondary education and working for a living. Up until now, parents have been responsible for making major decisions for their child, and teachers primarily controlled school demands. As adults, though, students will be required to make decisions themselves and be held accountable. Regardless of whether they are working or pursuing further education, they can expect:
- Greater responsibility
- Less structure and immediate feedback
- Increased need for independent learning and time management
- The need to balance personal life and school/work requirements
Students in post-secondary can expect:
- Larger class sizes
- Less frequent due dates and reminders from teachers
- Classes that are longer but fewer and farther apart
- More free time that can be used either productively or idly
2. Make the move from “parent as advocate” to “parent as mentor”
This time in an emerging adult’s life is not only a transition for the individual, but also for you, the parents. Parents go from being the primary advocate and authority for their child, to needing their child’s consent in order to access any information about them. Although early adulthood is a time where many may be revelling in newfound independence, they still continue to need their parents in many ways. For individuals with LD/ADHD, the period of parental dependence tends to be longer than for their non-LD/ADHD counterparts. Regardless, a major challenge for parents of young adults is learning when and how to be supportive without stifling self-determination and independence. Parents can give advice, encouragement, and teach and practice skills with their child, but ultimately, they have to respect their child’s autonomy.
3. Build your child’s self-advocacy skills
The first step to self-advocacy is self-awareness. It is critical that individuals with LD/ADHD have an accurate understanding of their condition(s) and the specific impact on them personally. As individuals with LD/ADHD approach adulthood, they should become more knowledgeable about their learning profiles, including their areas of strength and need, as well as supports that have proven effective for them. They must know this so that they can communicate it to others. As adults, they will be responsible for informing others of their needs and formally requesting accommodations as needed. Therefore, parents can help support their child’s independence by reviewing their assessments with them and helping them identify their strengths and needs. Parents can also create scripts with their child of how they can explain this to others.
4. Connect your child to appropriate resources
Physician: Your child might be under the care of a pediatrician and need to make the transition to a new doctor when they reach adulthood. Depending on your child’s needs, a referral to a psychiatrist may be appropriate, or you may wish to seek a general practitioner with experience and expertise in your child’s condition(s).
Psychologists: To receive accommodations in post-secondary education, your child will need an updated psychoeducational assessment. Starting this process in grade 12 will ensure that they have the necessary documentation in place prior to beginning post-secondary studies. Also, an updated understanding of their learning profile may support decision-making about what direction to take after high school. Furthermore, if your child is struggling with anxiety, depression, and/or the stress that can accompany transitions, they may need some professional counselling.
Career counselling: Some students know exactly what they want to do with their lives when they graduate high school, but many don’t. Understanding one’s strengths can also help with finding a career path. The “goodness of fit” between an individual and a job will depend on that individual’s unique interests, strengths, and challenges. To better understand what options are out there and how personal strengths and qualities can apply themselves to different jobs, career counselling is a helpful option. Also, encourage internships, part-time jobs, or volunteer work so your child can develop important skills and try out fields of interest before committing to a particular path.
Accessibility Services: At the post-secondary level, individuals with LD/ADHD can receive support through their school’s Accessibility Services department. However, it is up to the student to make contact, ensure the necessary documentation is up-to-date and in place well in advance of expecting accommodations, and advocate for their needs. Post-secondary schools treat students as the legal adults they are, with the rights and responsibilities that entails.
Through Accessibility Services, students with eligible conditions can receive accommodations such as
- extra time on exams
- access to an academic strategist
- recorded lectures
- instructor’s notes
- reduced course load
- preferred seating
- assistive technology
Additionally, several post-secondary institutions offer transitional programs in advance of beginning a degree or diploma program to help bridge the gap between high school and post-secondary studies. Though students must take many of these steps on their own, parents can make students aware of their options and provide them with the encouragement and self-advocacy skills to support them in making those steps.
Employment Services: If your child chooses to go straight into the workforce, there are employment services available through Alberta Community and Social Services. Also, employees are legally entitled to reasonable workplace accommodations.
Workplace accommodations can include variations in:
- workspace and equipment needed to do the task
- communication of the work
- the tasks themselves
- the time and place that the work is done
When requesting accommodations, it is important for your child to study themselves doing the job in order to determine what works and what doesn’t. They should also explain what they need in positive terms and how it supports their productivity or work quality. As a mentor, parents can guide their child in this process and provide a supportive listening ear.
5. Build your child’s social network
In addition to you and the professionals mentioned above, members of the community, friends, and romantic partners can be included in your child’s support system. A balanced life is important, so taking the time to develop and nurture supportive relationships is part of self-care. If your child’s social connections are lacking, connecting them with a community mentor and encouraging them to pursue some extracurricular activities where they can meet likeminded peers could be a way to support them in this area.
6. Transition is a process, not a one-time event
The transition to adulthood is gradual. Your child is likely to reach the age of legal adulthood long before they feel like an adult. As you most likely know, adulthood is a journey of ups and downs and self-discovery. Although parents tend to become more hands-off with time, it’s important to remember that there will be times when your adult child may need more support followed by redirection toward independence.
Although there is no cure for either LD or ADHD, many people develop compensatory strategies and may appear to overcome or outgrow their diagnosis. Still, there are challenges that continue into adulthood and new ones that surface. While there is much to look forward to in the transition to adulthood, there is also a need for careful consideration and planning in advance of this transition. Parents are key to initiating and supporting these transition plans by making the necessary connections and empowering their children toward independence.