Hidden Disabilities -- 5 Things You Need to Know

Working parents with Special education Special needs children including Autism ADHD Learning disabilities  Employee benefits Employee assistance Employee support Voluntary benefits. 504 Plan, IEP Program

I think we'd all agree that it's easier to believe and understand what we can see and doubt or question things we cannot.  For children, teens, and adults with an invisible, or hidden disability, this increases the obstacles and the barriers to getting support.

There are some basic things to know about things you cannot see:

1.  The issue of no visible supports.  It's extremely difficult for a 5th Grader to explain to a teacher that he/she needs to stand vs. sit in a classroom.  Or to once again explain that their inability to read social cues in high school requires teacher assistance.  In school, disclosure is needed to access supports and services, yet many children struggle to convey and explain what they need even with these supports in place.  And because what they need isn't seen, they often face push-back and misunderstanding due to the hidden nature of their needs. 

2.  The issue of stigma.  No one wants to acknowledge that they're struggling and this is particularly true in the workplace.  The issue of "conceal or reveal" exists for every employee with an invisible disability and much depends upon the person, his/her needs and diagnosis, the company and environment, external support, and what guidance is received related to making their needs known.

In school, there are supports such as IEPs or 504s and parents are the front-line advocates in this arena.  Yet in the workplace, it's up to the individual to self-advocate.  Disclosure and the associated stigma and possible ramifications of doing so have real implications.

3.  The issue of being misunderstood.  Parents of children and teens with developmental disabilities, auditory processing deficits, learning challenges, and mental health issues (just to name a few) know the fight they often face to have teachers, family members, and others understand that their children's needs are real.  Far too often, children/teens with invisible disabilities are penalized - in school, in the community, at family functions, and in the juvenile justice system - for needs that cannot be seen. 

4.  The issue of permanence.  While there are services, supports, and strategies that can strengthen areas of need, many invisible disabilities are lifelong.  The issue often heard, when is comes to children and behavior, for example, about it being a "stage or phase" does a disservice to the struggles faced.  It also makes learning to self-advocate harder when others doubt your word and your realities from childhood into adulthood.

5.  The issue of struggle.  We tend to empathize with someone who uses a visible tool to aid in their functioning, yet often ignore or underestimate the needs of those whose struggles cannot be seen.  The physical, emotional, and mental toll of invisible or hidden disabilities are as real as any that can be seen, if not moreso.  The challenges faced go beyond learning to live with ADHD or a mental health diagnosis -- they are intensified by having to convince or prove that what they're dealing with is real.

From parents advocating for their children in school and teaching teens how to self-advocate, to acknowledging invisible disablities in college and the workplace,  the words of a very wise man are words to remember:

"Everything that we see is a shadow by that which we do not see." -Martin Luther King, Jr.

Struggling Kids Become Adults ... Then What?

Did you know that the costs to incarcerate someone is more than it is to educate them?  I'm sure this is the case in most states as would be the statistics that show that a fairly hefty percentage of the young adults and adults in prison have undiagnosed disabilities - learning, developmental, behavioral, emotional, mental. This isn't about scaring parents into thinking that their struggling children are heading to jail.  Rather, it's about asking parents to look toward the horizon, where high school graduation, driving, college, employment, and independent living comes into play.  It's about acknowledging that if your child is struggling today, they may well grow into a struggling adult.

No parent wants to know that their 4th Grader has dyslexia or their 9th Grader is bipolar.  No parent wants to think about how their 6th Grader is going to manage through the social challenges of middle school when their child has Asperger's Syndrome or how their gifted 12th Grader with ADHD is going to handle the demands of college.  But here's the reality - acknowledge and work to support it today, or know that the gaps grow wider and the consequences far more serious with each passing year.

Over the past few months, I've read actual posts from college students asking to pay others to write their college papers or take their online classes for them.  Nothing new as we've heard about this for some time.  And while I'll readily admit that some may be lazy or just not interested in doing the work, others may have been struggling with reading, writing, or math for years.   This creates enormous pressure for the child which morphs into serious challenges for them as adults, and while they learn ways to "smoke and mirror" their deficits, eventually the smoke clears and the mirror cracks.

Ask any college administrator about the increasing numbers of freshman who are taking remedial classes - and more than one or two and often for multiple semesters - because they are woefully deficient in basic academic skills and this tells us plenty.  Ask any college health services department about the exploding numbers of students seeking mental health counseling and this tells us plenty.  And ask any manager about the numbers of Gen Y employees who cannot write a well-developed report or develop a budget and this tells us plenty.   These issues didn't just appear...many have been hidden in plain sight for many for years.

Parents are stretched thin, often struggling to balance work and family with a host of other responsibilities.  And having just one more thing to do is often enough to tip the scale beyond being able to manage.  Yet I would bet that there isn't a parent who doesn't want their child to be able to live and function as a competent, self-sufficient adult.  For many, however, this is a goal that comes with additional requirements in order to achieve it.

Maybe your child won't be posting on Craigslist or a college Facebook page for someone to write their Sociology paper, and maybe your child won't find him/herself struggling with emotional issues that makes keeping a full-time job impossible.  But maybe they will.  Wouldn't it be better to look the needs in the face now, while they're young, instead of hoping they'll go away when they become young adults?  We give our children roots as well as wings to fly, but for many, they need far more.