Young Adults with Disabilities: Overfunctioning Can Lead to Underfunctioning

Girl putting flowers in friend's hairWhen I was 16 and an academic superstar, I set up appointments to visit Ivy League and other colleges that I might attend the following year. Most of these visits involved campus tours on which my parents would accompany me. A few involved the opportunity to be hosted overnight by current freshmen in their dormitories. Although extremely socially uncomfortable, I managed the Princeton overnight with a modicum of grace. The Princeton campus was suburban and reminded me a lot of the university town in which I had grown up.

Then came the Yale overnight. My mother and I arrived in New Haven, a gritty, tough, urban town, and I went into an office to sign in for my overnight adventure. I came out with maps, keys, and information, and was suddenly so overwhelmed with anxiety that I felt I couldn’t follow through with the plan. My mother and I spent the night in her hotel room, and I returned home with my tail between my legs, begging my mother not to tell the rest of my family what had really transpired.

What was this sudden loss of nerve about?

Looking back, I now understand that my family lore had been that, as long as I overachieved academically, the fact that I had a pretty severe visual impairment would not be an issue in my life (I have since gotten some correction). We all bought into that denial, and the result was that, while I most certainly did overachieve academically, I was underachieving in developing social skills, confidence, and the life skills that I would need to function as an independent adult.

While I was underfunctioning in these areas, others were both overfunctioning and overprotecting me. This behavior was so ingrained in our family that even my baby sister participated in it: when we went into an ice cream parlor, she would immediately start whispering all the flavors in my ear so that we could proactively avoid the spectacle of me straining to see something or asking publicly for assistance, very likely holding up the line in the process.

After leaving home at 17, I acquired the life skills I needed pretty quickly. I was a fully independent adult by the time I was 21, able to work and travel in Europe. Acquiring ease with social skills took another few years beyond that. Even now, in my forties, I still struggle internally with social unease on a regular basis.

Could my family, who loved me dearly, have done something to help me develop more normally?

I ask this question because I now see young disabled clients of mine in the same position as I was the day I panicked at Yale. Regardless of whether or not they are academic superstars, they are underfunctioning in the areas of life and social skills development, while others—their parents, extended family members, and teachers—are overfunctioning for them.

The more these well-intentioned authority figures overfunction, the more my clients lose the opportunity to practice the skills they need to develop and the confidence to try, fail, and try again, until mastery is achieved. The subtle message the overfunctioners are  inadvertently sending is, “I don’t think you’ll be able to do this.” In some cases, of course, it’s true that people with disabilities can’t do things the same way that other people do them. More often than not, though, if left to our own devices, we can figure out our own ways of doing things that work just fine for us—including ways that involve asking for help.

If may be scary and painful for our parents to watch us attempt things that they don’t think they would be capable of if they had our disabilities. But often the best thing they can do for us is to stand back with confidence, and let us try. In the specific case of social exclusion because of other children’s ignorance, I think the best way parents and teachers could help us is to look for opportunities to teach young people to respect and include people with disabilities. In some—or, perhaps, most—cases, this might require our parents and teachers to first spend time examining their own feelings, beliefs, and prejudices.

© Copyright 2010 by By Wendy E. Smith, MA, LMHC, therapist in Seattle, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • lloyd M.

    lloyd M.

    April 28th, 2010 at 5:49 PM

    it is important for to be proficient in all aspects and not be great at a few things and be lacking in a few others…now even if the things that a person is lacking in are very few,these few things can actually over-shadow the many things that the person is great at,thereby bringing down the overall value.

  • Pauline


    April 29th, 2010 at 2:21 AM

    I think that this is true of parents with children no matter whether there are any disabilities or not.
    Too many times i see parents who do not allow their kids the chance to grow and develop. They want to do too much to protect them from what might happen and in turn do not give them the confidence and the skills that they need to handle the situation on their own.
    This really does nothting but offer the kids a huge disservice. It does not show them how to cope and deal in any situation and that can be dangerous for the kids as they grow up and are starting to navigate life on their own.
    I know that I have been guilty of this myself but I have had to take a step back and ask if what I am doing is to protect my child from feeling uncomfortabe and being a little out of sorts or if what I am doing is preparing him for life on his own.
    When I have made the decision that what I am doing is of no help to him in the future unfortunately I know that the best choice is step back and let him go.
    One of the best lessons that any child can learn is that they are not always going to succeed at everything but that this is ok, life goes on, and when you learn how to deal that will only make you stronger in the long run.

  • Mark B.

    Mark B.

    April 29th, 2010 at 7:10 AM

    I was always interested in soccer ever since I was in junior school…but my parents were over-protective of me just like they were to my older siblings and were hesitant to actually let me participate and train…this ended my dream of playing soccer for my school team and later possibly for a college team and maybe even going further…when I see others playing soccer so well today,I feel bad because maybe I could have been as just good now instead of being a casual player of soccer :|

  • Wendy E. Smith, MA, LMHCA

    Wendy E. Smith, MA, LMHCA

    June 16th, 2010 at 7:45 PM

    Thanks for all of your comments on this post. I think it is true that over-functioning occurs in parents of all kinds of children, disabled or not; in the case of disabled children, though, the adverse effects can be magnified.

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