This Tips for Parents article authored by Dr. Aimee Yermish is from a seminar she hosted for Young Scholar families about the transition to adulthood for twice-exceptional students.
The transition to adulthood is not a single-shot thing. Launching is a developmental process, in which kids develop proficiency and comfort with many different life skills, gradually, over time. For twice-exceptional kids, we often notice severe asynchronies in terms of how difficult various things are for them to learn and what they are ready to learn when. They may be able to compensate effectively when they are younger, but may not therefore be learning the skills they need at those times. Then, as the expectations of the world increase, they find themselves needing to play catch-up.
The usual “default” path (full-time traditional school to full-time college at 18 to full-time job immediately after schooling and then, marriage, career, kids, and so on) may not be what makes the most sense for them. Consider alternatives, including internships, volunteering, travel, work, or other experiences that will help them build experience with the real world and develop their independent living skills.
Because some of the relevant skills (often self-regulation (e.g., getting work done independently), self-care (e.g., laundry, showering, food), and self-advocacy (e.g. talking to people when they need help, making complex decisions) may be much harder for 2E kids to develop than many of skills in their areas of passion, we have to recognize that these things do take time. The best time to plant a fruit tree is, of course, ten years ago. It pays to start developing these skills when the children are quite young. However, if that didn’t happen, the second-best time to plant the tree is now. Be patient. But set the limits. Limits are therapy. They aren’t allowed to stagnate or give up.
As with all development of executive functioning skills, adults’ most common mistake is to ask for too much change too rapidly. If a kid is not developing competency with a skill, break it down into smaller pieces and learn each piece gradually. If you give them too much freedom at once, they are likely to crash and burn, and then you will have to take away the freedom, which makes everyone miserable. Instead, engage the kid in the problem-solving process; let them answer your concerns and show you how they can demonstrate competency and earn trust over time. (There is much more information on this topic in the tip sheets from my seminars on executive functioning.)
One important aspect of the transition to adulthood is that when children are young, we focus mainly on remediation, on finding out what they have trouble with and intervening to help them get good at it. Over time, the focus tends to shift to accepting what isn’t going to get better easily and what therefore must be accommodated. And then, as they move into adulthood, more and more we need to help them think constructively about what they need to accept as limitations — in the real world, while some accommodations can be had, it’s really a better move to think about helping them choosing options where they can be successful on their own terms.
To do this, however, requires a certain amount of grieving, both by parents and by kids. The real child is not the imagined child, the real life is not the imagined life. It is important to honor this metaphorical loss, and to accept the sadness and anger that can go along with it. You are not a bad parent for having negative feelings about your child, your spouse, or yourself, as you go through the process.
The parenting dynamic also often has to change a great deal. Many parents of 2E kids find themselves in a pattern of rescuing the kids from painful situations. As the kids move towards adulthood, not only is it less appropriate for parents to be in that role, the kids often don’t want the parents to be there either. They may not express themselves clearly on that topic; sometimes what they do appears to be overconfidence, rejection, or self-sabotage.
Frequently, kids are ambivalent about the changes in their lives: part of them wants to grow up and move out, and part of them may be afraid they cannot do it, may wish to continue enjoying the life when other people take care of them, or may be resistant for some other reason. Rather than trying to convince them of the importance of the change you want them to make, explore the ambivalence with them. Work the conversation such that you are taking on the “yeah, but” side, and let them be the one to argue for the positive change. Look for the areas in life where they are successful and help them think through what does work for them. Recognize that they are trying to figure out not just what they want to do, but who they are.
From a concrete standpoint, 2E kids should get a full professional re-evaluation before any major change, particularly before entering college. We need to see where they are at the present moment. Typically, the special education system will not provide this, or will not do it with the focus on transition planning that we would hope; it is advisable to have the evaluation done privately. That evaluation will be necessary to apply for accommodations for the SAT, ACT, or other standardized tests, as well as to document the nature of the disability for college. The standardized test companies are particularly reluctant to grant accommodations; kids are unlikely to get any accommodation that is not documented in an existing IEP, 504 plan, or other written agreement with a school.
Think in very concrete terms about what skills they need to develop and how their disabilities might affect their lives. For example, many 2E kids do have trouble learning to drive, or are afraid that they will. They may not understand why clean clothes and bodies are relevant, but they need to learn to have them reliably. If they have medically-based limitations, they need to learn how to take care of themselves. Consider learning to manage bank accounts and credit cards as just as important as learning to do calculus. Many of the same academic accommodations they used in secondary school will be appropriate in college, although they will generally not be able to ask for changes in how material is presented. They may also need accommodations around living arrangements, course load, choice of section, and the like.
Some kids show little interest in launching, and parents worry that they will live in the basement playing video games indefinitely. Limit-setting is important here; think about how to gradually transition them into a contributing member of the household. If they are persistently unable to make this transition, then think seriously about what your alternatives might be. Rather than feeling that you must either support them indefinitely or throw them out to starve on the street, consider engaging government or private professional services, which can provide training in social, independent living, or vocational skills; group homes or other supervised, supportive, or therapeutic housing; as well as supplemental income (for which you can become the payee if the child is not able to manage money well).
Recognize that our lives are all, always, works-in-progress. It can sometimes feel like the stakes at any given moment are tremendously high. Provide freedom in gradual enough doses so that it is hard for them to fail too dangerously or permanently. And help them find the path that works for them. They probably won’t grow out of their disabilities… but they can grow into them.