When 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 GoodTherapy.org.
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