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Helping Young Adults with Disabilities “Get Launched”



Transition to Independence


Helping Young Adults with Disabilities “Get Launched” .

When the high school years have ended parents of kids with disabilities or other special needs generally have two conflicting reactions simultaneously.

First there’s a huge sigh of relief, especially if the school years were characterized by angst and struggle with frustrating IEP meetings and/or teens resistant to participating in schoolwork and activities. Many parents have been warriors on their child’s behalf since kindergarten (or even earlier), and they are simply exhausted.

Soon after, there may come the anxiety of realizing that, after celebrating the high school graduation, their son or daughter faces a vast desert in terms of how to fill their days. There is no longer a relatively safe and structured, age-appropriate, all-day setting to send them to. There is instead a patchwork of untested, often poorly coordinated and ill-fitting services, or no services at all.

Or, for some, there is the prospect of going to higher education, another vast landscape of new challenges. There are supports and services for students who need tutoring, accommodations, or counseling, but the student must be able to self-activate and access these services. Many of my clients are not developmentally or emotionally ready to do this at the point of starting college. Some of my clients have never even completed their high school academics without lots of teacher and parental structuring, much less done so in an environment that demands both increased social savvy and academic performance.

Some would say that the high schools and parents have failed these students. I disagree. While attention to transition preparation during the high school years is essential for development toward adulthood, it is always insufficient for “launching” an adult by age 18-21. There are two main reasons for this: (1) human neuro-development and (2) today’s world.

(1) Neuro-development

During adolescence and into the early 20s, human brains go through a lot of changes toward eventual maturity. There is a lot of cellular “pruning” and tidying going on, requiring temporary off-lining of some areas of the brain. This neuro-developmental process results in temporarily reducing important traits, such as: judgment, self-awareness, emotional regulation, understanding others’ points of view, and being able to put off goodies today for greater rewards tomorrow. It’s not that teens and twenty-somethings can’t do any of these things, but it just doesn’t always come naturally or easily. They look a lot like adults, and are really capable and smart in many ways, but there will be lapses that surprise you, and even surprise themselves.

We all experience these adolescent changes as we grow up, whether we are considered “typical” or we have some diagnosis or other. It is as it is, but it’s not so compatible with suddenly transitioning into independent grown-ups.

The solutions for this neuro-developmental snafu? Time and opportunities for learning and practicing new skills. Patience and coaching when mistakes are made.

(2) Today’s world is demanding

Every time I help a client to apply for a job, whether it’s an advertisement for a busser at a restaurant or a master web designer, they not only want someone who can do the basic tasks, but also someone who has “excellent communication skills, both verbal and written” and other high-level abilities that may or may not have much to do with the essential job tasks. They also often stipulate a preference for applicants with college degrees and tons of experience.

Completing one on-line application after another is tedious and demoralizing work at best; it’s even tougher when you sense that you have almost none of the stated skills or traits. Parents have only so many connections to tap on behalf of their child before options have run dry. Lastly, the business world continues to remain largely very nervous when it comes to hiring anyone with any level of disability, even though things are better than ever before in that arena.

The solutions to getting a career on track for young people with disabilities? No one can do a job without training and practice, and few will stay with a job that is a poor fit. It’s important to discover options that each client feels sufficiently enthusiastic and determined about to prepare and work hard for. For inexperienced want-to-be workers, securing employment or even a meaningful volunteer position can require taking up their cause with fervor and creativity. Locating quality learning opportunities and places/people who are motivated to take a chance on hiring an inexperienced young person requires tenacity, creativity and strong interpersonal skills. I have found that having credibility as an occupational therapist and my genuine interest in finding a good fit for both my client and the employer helps a lot.

One last thing about human development and society: Teens and young adults are programmed internally and externally to seek separation and independence from their parents, at least as much of it as they can do. That means that parents (the people who love the young person most in the world) can be less effective at helping them than are people who are not the parents. It’s aggravating, but true.


1) Biology and society work together to slow down adolescent-to-adult development. Most young people are not “launched” until their late 20s or even 30s these days, and it’s not their parent’s fault! Even more so for young adults with a disability or other challenges.

2) People who have become or who are at risk of becoming “stuck at home” very often benefit from focused, skilled help to determine a career and independent lifestyle path and to make it happen.

If you or someone you know would like to know more about how an occupational therapist can help with successful transitioning, go to www.b-futures.com and contact me! I serve people in the southwestern/western Chicago suburb area. I have Occupational Therapist colleagues around the country, as well, if you need ideas about finding help elsewhere.