Special Needs Schools

Students with special needs, including AD/HD, and expressive and receptive language issues often need people to advocate for them in order to get appropriate support from schools and practitioners. Most of that responsibility falls on parents and grandparents during early and middle childhood. However, when these students reach their teen years, they need to begin learning how to advocate for themselves. With high school graduation just a few short years away, it is time to start thinking about how they will fare in less protected environments.

Where do students with special needs go after they graduate? Some go right into jobs, others into vocational training programs, and others will go on to college. In those settings, it will be inappropriate or sometimes even forbidden for parents to be involved in setting up supports for their child despite his/her special needs. While it may be a bit anxiety-provoking, it is worthwhile to begin asking the following questions when a student enters the middle school and high school years:

After graduation, how will this student handle...

  • a situation in which a boss gives him a task that he does not understand?
  • a situation in which a professor or instructor gives an assignment that she does not understand?
  • a situation in which a co-worker asks him why he has a specific accommodation?
  • a fellow student asks why she uses a tape recorder during lectures?
  • a boss gives him critical feedback during a performance evaluation?
  • a situation in which a college counselor asks her if she had an IEP in school, and if so what accommodations are listed in it that she might need on campus?

What skills must students with special needs learn before graduating in order to be able to handle these types of situations? Remember, teens with learning differences grow up to be adults with learning differences. Adults with learning differences have to live in the "real world" where people who do not know them will NOT automatically accommodate them or tolerate their differences. Adults who are too reliant on having others speak for them are less likely to thrive and more likely to fail. One of the most common reasons cited for adults with LD being fired from jobs is miscommunication with supervisors. One study showed the primary reasons college students with special needs fail are poor self-advocacy skills, limited autonomy and inability to access needed services and supports.

The aim of self-advocacy skills training is to give students with special needs the tools they need to function independently once they leave high school. That means they will not need someone else to think for them or speak for them. This preparation can take several years, so it is best to start, at the very latest, when the child is in middle school.

What is self-advocacy?
"Self-advocacy" refers to people with disabilities speaking up for themselves.

The self-advocacy "movement" has its roots in the broader civil rights movements of the 1960' and 1970's. In New York State, the movement became most organized about 20 years ago in the wake of the major deinstitutionalization movement. Self-advocacy was historically focused on adults with disabilities and their need to make decisions about their lives without being controlled by others. More recently the focus has broadened. Any person who is in a "system" where the balance of power is skewed, the individual will benefit from using self-advocacy skills. For example, you may feel disempowered when you are in the role of "patient" in the medical system. The movement now includes a wider range of disabilities. The current view in the field leans toward teaching self-advocacy skills that are key to survival in adulthood to students with special needs. There are many tools and resources for teaching teens with learning disabilities self-advocacy skills.

How can parents help their teens to be effective self-advocates?

  1. Facilitate self-discovery and self-awareness. Gradually give your child more information on his or her learning disability while consistently highlighting strengths and talents. Your goal is to have your child be able to say with confidence, "I know my strengths, limitations, and learning style."
  2. Foster self-acceptance. Don't try to hide your teen's disability from him or her, as this only creates an atmosphere of shame. Be frank about the terms educators and clinicians use to describe the learning disability (e.g., AD/HD, LD, etc), all while emphasizing that this difference is not necessarily a handicap. You want your teen to be able to say, "I know it is OK to learn differently and that I can be successful in life."
  3. Teach self-advocacy skills. Help your teen to begin practicing speaking up for him or her self. In situations where you would normally do the talking, let your teen try it out. Make sure he knows what medications he takes and why, or what accommodations she needs and why. You want to build your teen's confidence in being able to say, "I know how to explain to other people how I learn and to ask for what I need in order to succeed."

Dr. Valerie Gaus is a consultant to the Vincent Smith School in Port Washington and holds a private practice in Cold Spring Hills, NY. She is also the author of two books; Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Adult Asperger's Syndrome (Guilford Press-2007) and Living Well on the Spectrum (Guilford Press-2011). Dr. Gaus can be reached at gaus@optonline.net.

Resources:

Self-Advocacy Association of New York State www.sanys.org 

CHADD www.chadd.org

AHA www.ahany.org

Autism Speaks www.autismspeaks.org

Best Colleges www.bestcolleges.com

Online Colleges www.onlinecolleges.net

Guide to Scholarships and Grants for Students with Disabilities  www.moneygeek.com/education/college/resources/scholarship-guide-for-students-with-disabilities

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