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Teens with special needs must prep for transition to adulthood

When parents are raising teens with ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, learning disabilities or mental health challenges, it feels impossible to just get through the teen years. Parents focus on two main things--helping their kids stay in school and stay out of trouble. But parents need to add two more priorities to their list: self-awareness and self-advocacy.

Keeping teens with mild to moderate disabilities successful in school can take an enormous amount of energy for teens--and for their parents. The idea of adding more expectations can seem extremely overwhelming. However, it is essential for your teen to leave high school not only with awareness and acceptance of his/her learning challenges, but also with the capabilities to acquire the accommodations they will need in college, vocational training or in a job.

Without these learned skills, your teen’s struggles as an adult may be much more difficult than his or her problems in high school. It is vital to learn these lessons in high school as the adult world is much less forgiving than high school--and young adults often experience deeper feelings of failure as they develop their adult identity.


Do move away from modifications and direct services--and towards accommodations in the IEP

While accommodations at all public institutions and places of employment should be provided through the American with Disabilities Act--people must specifically ask for these accommodations. So, if your teen needs written instructions, in addition to oral assistance, or more time to complete tests, he or she must request this specific help. And it is important to learn how to do this while still in high school.

Do have your teen keep a printout of the accommodations he/she needs to show teachers

Most teens do not want to stand out in the classroom, so asking their teacher for what they perceive to be a “special favor” is not easy. By having a copy of the accommodations documented in their IEP or 504 Plan, teens can physically show the teacher what is required by law. Additionally, your teen won’t have to mentally retrieve the details and can refer to the printout.

Do expect teens to email their own teachers

Once teens have a list of accommodations, they can begin working directly with teachers. Begin with one teacher. Be sure to choose a teacher that has a strong relationship with your son or daughter, and who seems receptive and willing to provide the correct accommodations. Encourage teens to email their teachers and request their accommodations. Success will build upon itself. Because this is a lifelong skill, start practicing when they have the rights documented in the IEP or 504 Plan.

Do set very clear and specific expectations for what school success looks like

Parents must separate their school experience from their child’s experience. While you may have earned straight As, this may be beyond your child’s capacity. And grades do not reflect mastery of content, or predict college or adult life outcomes. Sit down with your teen and discuss what success looks like for your teen, as well as what works and does not work in school.

Do talk to your teen about his or her learning needs and disabilities

Some parents choose not to discuss their teen’s learning challenges with their teen out of a misplaced concern that the teen will feel different or labeled. However, every person with a disability is well aware of what they can and cannot do. Without understanding the physiological basis, children and adults internalize their beliefs of feeling like failures and feeling incompetent. Use books, YouTube videos, websites and individuals from your community to normalize the issues, and give your teen language, understanding and acceptance for his or her unique learning style. And remember to not only discuss your teen’s needs and challenges, but also spend a lot of time talking about your teen’s strengths.


Do not expect special educators to help organize your teen

High school special education teachers are tasked with having kids complete the minimum graduation requirements. They have little time with each student--and that time is focused on completing assignments. While teachers may want to do more, they are usually not given the time or resources to teach students about time management, prioritizing, chunking assignments or using technology, such as apps for IPhones. Consequently, parents must provide this type of assistance for their kids, or they need to hire tutors and coaches.

Do not assume your teen can use your personal strategies

Remember that teens with ADHD and other disabilities, which affect executive functioning, need to be taught how to do certain things. Don’t judge your teen or assume he/she is choosing to be disorganized. They may not have the same skills as you. For example, while you may be able to estimate how long it will take to shower, some teens with disabilities need assistance to do this.

Start small, such as teaching your teen how to prepare for a swim lesson or soccer practice. Make a list of what is needed and group this list into units. Your teen may want to have all of his soccer gear in one bag and swim gear in another bag. Offer some options on how to organize; use technology, such as apps, a camera, and alarms; and let him try different ways to organize until he finds what works best for him.

Do not check your teen’s backpack for school assignments

Unless you plan to attend college with your teens, they have to learn how to manage their own workload. If well-meaning parents constantly help their kids through high school, how will they manage without you?

Many high schools expect students, including those with learning disabilities, to write down their assignments using index cards and paper planners. However, this is old school. Today’s teens are technologically savvy, so we need to let them take pictures of the assignments on the board, use an app planner for big projects, and use online tools, such as Noodletool, to take notes.

Do not talk to teachers and counselors without including your teen

Before teens can become self-advocates, they need to understand that they have a learning challenge or ADHD, understand how it affects them personally, accept that it does, and learn what accommodations they need to function in the world.

One important way to help your teen navigate these issues is to be involved in all parts of their IEP, 504 Plan or talking to their school counselor. Parents who do this for their teens--without including their teens in the conversation--are disempowering their sons and daughters.

Do not expect things to change quickly

New neuropathways must be built for the new skill to become a habit. It takes many repetitions to do this. Your teen may do great one day--and be an organizational mess the next. Praise the effort on the good days. Provide lots of immediate feedback. Give specific responses to the skill and not on innate things, such as intelligence. Give your teens space to fail, as well as space to find their way.

Jumping cartoon

It is important to give teens the tools, strategies and confidence they need to learn about their disability, learning style and strengths. This is necessary so they can develop their self- awareness, self-confidence and ultimately become skilled self-advocates as they transition from teens to adults.

Believe in them and their ability to find different ways, especially using technology, to get the accommodations they need in college and in the workplace. Remember there will be good days and bad days--and days when it all comes together and days when it all falls apart. But eventually, kids will learn it is ultimately their responsibility to get what they need as young adults.

More expert advice about Caring for Teens and Adults with Disabilities

Photo Credits: Teen Advisory Committee-4 by Vancouver Public Library via Flickr; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas -

Anna StewartFamily Advocate

Anna Stewart has a particular voice, drawing from her direct experience as a mother of 3 unique teens, she is an advocate, writer and facilitator for parents. She is passionate about the distinction between advocating for and advocating with yo...

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