Dr. Gwen Palafox on Supporting & Empowering Neurodivergent Young Adults in the Transition to Adulthood
My guest for this conversation is Dr. Gwen Palafox, a psychologist who has been supporting disabled and neurodivergent young adults in the transition to adulthood for more than twenty years. I brought Gwen on the show to talk about helping our teens and young adults “launch” into adulthood, specifically how to prepare for and help them acquire the skills and support that would help them move into the version of independent living that’s right for them. In our conversation, we looked at some of the common challenges neurodivergent teens face in the transition to adulthood, how we can navigate systems and conversations with our kids to help them feel empowered and capable and have agency, and how to respond to our own concerns and fears about what comes next.
Gwen is honored to be a part of the lives of her wonderfully complex, unique, and awesome clients and their families and you truly hear it in the way she speaks about her work in this interview.
About Dr. Gwen Palafox
Dr. Gwen Palafox is a licensed psychologist who has been actively (and obsessively) supporting disabled and neurodivergent individuals for over two decades. She’s known to be laser-focused on taking the guesswork out of adult preparedness, helping teens and young adults find their most fulfilled and joyful lives. She is honored to be a part of the lives of her wonderfully complex, unique, and awesome clients and their families. Her best skills are out-of-the-box thinking, creativity, grit, enthusiasm, and compassion. She also has strong opinions on Star Wars, Marvel, Doctor Who, and The Princess Bride.
Things you’ll learn from this episode
- The underlying philosophy for the way Gwen supports young adults
- The critical skills neurodivergent young adults need in order to launch successfully
- Examples of replacing automated support aids with self-management systems as a way to gain independence
- The power in engaging teens in small, daily chores as a way to shift responsibility and build skills
- How parents can support teens who are feeling scared and anxious about leaving home, especially in times of Covid
- The common challenges neurodivergent teens face when transitioning into adulthood
- How Gwen’s Bright Life System helps pinpoint the skills teens need to work on before leaving the school system
Resources mentioned for a Neurodivergent Transition to Adulthood
- The Bright Life System (use code TILT15 to get a 15 percent discount off this course)
- Adulting Made Easy: Things Someone Should Have Told You About Getting Your Grown-Up Act Together by Amanda Morin
This Season’s Sponsor: Outschool
Whether you’re homeschooling your child, looking to enrich their learning, or just want to give your kids a new way to dive into their interests, Outschool is for you. Outschool takes kids ages 3 through 18 beyond the classroom to explore the topics they love through small, live classes taught by expert teachers, all through an accessible online learning platform.
Back when we were living abroad and I was homeschooling Asher, we tapped into Outschool for classes in writing and Minecraft. Today, Outschool offers more than 140,000 classes in just about every topic under the sun — I just love how passionate they are about celebrating the needs, interests, and learning styles of differently wired kids around the globe.
CLICK HERE to learn more about how Outschool can support your child’s learning journey, and use the code TILT to get a $20 credit towards your first class.
Debbie Reber 00:00
Tilt Parenting is proud to partner with Outschool this podcast season. Outschool’s unique approach to education empowers differently wired kids ages three through 18 to dive into their interests in small live classes designed to foster a love of learning, create connections and cultivate independence. Learn more at outschool.com/tilt.
Gwen Palafox 00:23
The biggest blind spot is that all the wonderful supports and accommodations that have been put into place and are now on autopilot, are left in autopilot. And so all the ways in we’ve supported this person are the skills that they need to learn or we should be saying, can they learn these skills, the responsibility of that support needs to be slowly shifted to the individual, so that when they do eventually go on to living a more independent life, whatever that looks like for them, they have the skills to do so.
Debbie Reber 01:03
Welcome to Tilt Parenting, a podcast featuring interviews and conversations aimed at inspiring, informing and supporting parents raising differently wired kids. I’m your host Debbie Reber and my guest for this conversation is Dr. Gwen Palafox, a psychologist who has been supporting disabled and neurodivergent young adults for more than 20 years. I brought Gwen onto the show to talk about helping our teens and young adults launch into adulthood, specifically how to prepare for and help them acquire the skills and support that would help them move into the version of independent living that’s right for them. In our conversation, we looked at some of the common challenges neurodivergent young adults face when transitioning into adulthood, how we can navigate systems and conversations with our kids to help them feel empowered and capable and have agency and how to respond to our own concerns and fears about what comes next. And before we jump in. Here’s a little more background about my guest. Gwen Palafox is known to be laser focused on promoting the happiness and well being of disabled teens and adults and considers herself lucky to support the families who love them. She is a fierce ally of disabled individuals and their families. And she’s shared her expertise and local and global workshops at a TEDx event as an expert witness and in collaboration with other engaged and radically awesome professionals. Gwen feels honored to be a part of the lives of her wonderfully complex, unique and awesome clients and their families. And you truly hear this and the way she speaks about her work in this interview. Oh, and one last thing. Near the end of the episode, you’ll hear Gwen talk about the Bright Life System. That’s a tool Gwen designed to empower parents and their autistic and disabled adolescents, teens and young adults prepare for adulthood. Gwen is offering tilt listeners a 15% discount on that bright live system. So you can learn more about that program on Gwen’s website, which is meaningfulgrowth.com and enter the code TILT15 When you check out to get that discount. Alrighty, so without further ado, let’s get to my conversation with Gwen.
Debbie Reber 03:26
Hey, Gwen, welcome to the podcast.
Gwen Palafox 03:28
Hi, Debbie. Thanks for having me. I’m so happy to be here.
Debbie Reber 03:32
Well, I’m excited because we had such a good conversation on your podcast earlier, I was preparing for this. And there’s so many things I want to talk about. But let’s start by just formally introducing you I read your bio already. But if you could just tell us a little bit about yourself, what you do in the world. And then I always love when guests can share their personal why with us.
Gwen Palafox 03:53
Okay, so, gosh, on paper, I’m a clinical psychologist here in California, really, I kind of stumbled, I will say into the neurodiverse community about 25 years ago, where I, my roommate, my college roommate said, hey, you know, when I’m working with this little boy, and I think you’d be great, and he’s autistic. And I said, Liz, I am not artistic at all. And she’s like, not artistic autistic, was my first introduction. And I started working with this little boy and really it actually kind of shaped my college life. I was already a Liberal Studies and psych child development double major, and it just really shaped me and I really didn’t look back and then I hit grad school. And I said, You know what, I’m going to try something else. And in psychology, you have to do this match. And you know, I interviewed at seven different places. They interviewed me and then you do this National Match and you have to go where you’re matched. And lo and behold, I get matched at the Health Group in Sherman Oaks, which is, you know, a specialized nonpublic school for neurodivergent children and teens and young adults. And I said, okay, but can I, I’ve been working with little ones up to that point. I said, I just want to work with junior high high school students, and they’re like, done. And I was like, Okay, this is like, this is my, my calling, I’m coming back to this. And then you know, I had an ABA, I have an ABA background, I did dir became a licensed psychologist. And really just, I think, in my own personal journey, tried to put together what all these methodologies and theories meant to me, what it meant to me, how it fit my personality, which is creative, silly, and humorous and energetic. How did I understand people? And I just realized very quickly that those two methodologies for me, were just tools, not the whole shed? Yeah. And so putting them together, went into private practice, and then supported many of my clients until they graduated high school, and realizing, Wait a minute, what about planning for the rest of their life? wait, we wait, we’ve been so focused on, you know, maybe academics or something, and now, we’ve exited the district. And we don’t have life skills. And this is like the rest of their life. And I quickly saw how that really started to create more tension and more conflict than I had anticipated, because I wasn’t apparent at the time. And then so now, because I have all these clients that Graduated, went to college or, you know, carve their own path, I need to disrupt how we think about and prepare our young neurodivergent clients and students for the world ahead of them. Like, that’s what we all want, you know, we all want to create a fulfilled, happy, healthy life. As adults, we do this for our neurotypical children. I don’t know why we don’t do this for a neuro diverse community. So today, I’m really laser focused on reducing the friction there. How do I help young adults? How do I help their families, their support systems create joyful, fulfilled adult lives? How do we get creative? How do we use community resources? How do we challenge paradigms and the zeitgeist to say, No, we got to do better. So that’s where I am today. My personal why, why do I do this? It always feels right. You know, whenever I’m at work, everything falls right into place, my attention, my energy, I leave work feeling completely fulfilled with a lot of purpose. And I love this community, I love my clients, they make me laugh from my deep hearted stomach laughs every day, they make me cry. And I you know, it’s just, it’s an honor to be on their journeys. And I, it’s, you know, I feel really, really honored that I can be a part of that, that’s me professionally. And then personally, I have a 14 year old and a husband and we are active in our own personal lives, and both influence each other dramatically. But yeah, that’s me in a nutshell, I guess.
Debbie Reber 08:20
That’s great. I love that. I also love how you talked about creating this joyful, fulfilled experience for these humans as they launch into adulthood. And that resonates so much. That is something I talk about all the time is just reminding parents like what we’re doing here, you know, we can get so focused on the micro and what’s happening in our lives here. But really, we’re looking to create self actualized adults who know how to advocate for themselves and who really can find happiness and success. I mentioned earlier that I was on your podcast. And we had such a lovely conversation. And I think we’ve just realized, oh, my gosh, there’s so much synergy and alignment here in our philosophy. Could you talk a little bit before we get more into specific things that you’re doing in the way that you work with families, but about your overall philosophy? You talked about a paradigm shift, you talked about disrupting things? So what’s the underlying philosophy behind the way you approach your work?
Gwen Palafox 09:14
Yeah, right out of the gate, I’ve got some core assumptions. And I think assumptions are so important to consider. One assumption is that people are trying their best and doing their best that applies to everybody. That’s not an easy assumption to hold, especially when we meet people who we might disagree with fundamentally, or we might disagree with the actions or behaviors that they’ve taken, or kind of exhibit. But I also don’t know what their journey is, and I don’t know what their lived experiences and so by me, kind of assuming that people are trying their best and doing their best to have the best intentions for themselves and how that’s their MO, right? Then I really quickly have empathy for their journey. Me, or what their journey is, or the fact that I don’t know all the details of their journey, so I have no place to judge. That’s my first core assumption. My other assumption that I work from very religiously is that I presume competence, I presume competence in my clients, I believe that they want to be a part of their life, that they can be part of their life, and that they are able to be part of their life, those two, trying your best doing your best and that you are competent, and want to do so really drive what I do the next I think the next kind of layer, if I were to think about the way I support people, is I really quickly start to develop each person’s Rosetta Stone. So it’s like, you know, all of my clients have very unique profiles. So there’s different things that affect them. Right? That could be their sensory motor challenges. It could be language challenges, it can be sensory sensitivities, it could be executive functioning kinds of issues, it could be cognitive differences. It could be you know, I mean, the list goes on and on. And the most important thing is, what is the way in which this person thrives? So what are the conditions of thriving for this young person, a lot of times, I have to consider their habitat, their environment, their family system, because that is so important, you know, the young people that I support, end up, you know, they’re, they’re supported by their families for much longer than a neurotypical young person is today, you know, and so, considering family systems, considering interactions between parents and children, even if their children or teens are in their 20s, or 30s, or 40s, or 50s, I’ve got some of those clients in their 50s. Right? When we develop that Rosetta Stone that how does this? How does this person tick? I really feel like what happens then is we look through the eyes of accessibility, right? How do we help this person access their communities and their world in a successful way we access, what supports and services they’re going to need. And we also assess how, how can we help this person be comfortable. And I think that’s something that we miss, you know, my clients. What I found is they’re the hardest, some of the hardest working people on the planet, they’ve got to do way more expend way more energy than a lot of us do for the same things. So they burn out quicker, they’re overwhelmed by stress in a bigger way, rest, recuperation, comfort, are critical factors in living a fulfilled and productive life. Because if you don’t land those pieces, what happens is we burn out, and then we don’t go out. We don’t expand, we don’t elaborate. And that’s what we want our young, any young person to do, right? We want them to open up. We want them to show we want them to be involved to get to lean in. But when we don’t kind of hit what works for them, what happens is they become overwhelmed, burned out, and they withdraw. And then we don’t get to see their lovely selves.
Debbie Reber 13:01
That’s super helpful. And I love that Rosetta Stone metaphor. I mean, we often talk about the importance of fluency becoming really fluent in the individual child that we’re raising. So I love that I’d love to know, just thinking about the listeners of this show are predominantly parents and caregivers who are working to support, raise, parent neurodivergent kids and teens, not as many parents of adults, but definitely lots of teens. And in that transition, getting ready to launch. I’m wondering what are some of the skills or some of the things that we might not be paying attention to we can get, again, so hyper focused on certain things that we prioritize as a family, and we might be totally missing something that is so critical to their success?
Gwen Palafox 13:49
Oh, that’s such a great question. You know, right away as you talk about launching, you know, another principle and mindset that I try to instill in my clients and my community is longer runways, softer landings, you know, this population, this community, they need longer runways and softer landings. They do. It’s something for us to accept. And I think when we accept that we appropriately support so I think the biggest blind spot that I experience as a professional as I’m supporting young people into their adult lives, the biggest blind spot is that all the wonderful supports and accommodations that have been put into place and are now on autopilot, or left in autopilot. And so all the ways in we’ve supported this person or the ways or the skills that they need to learn or we should be saying, can they learn these skills, the responsibility of that support needs to be slowly shifted to the individual, so that when they do eventually go on to living a more in independence life, whatever that looks like for them, they have the skills to do. So a good example of this would be when we’ve had a one on one aid at school, and they followed someone or these students had a one on one aid, you know, all the way through elementary, then junior high, then high school. And right away, if I’m working with, let’s say, a ninth grader, if someone comes to me in which I recommend that transition planning start in ninth grade, that’s not to say it’s really not too early, right? When you make that big transition to high school, that’s a very nice time to think about longer runway softer landing, this is the long runway now, right? If you have an aide in place to ask the question, what purpose do they serve? Oh, maybe it’s, you know, paying attention. Right? Really quickly, a self management system needs to be put in place that that student can practice, that aid can help facilitate that self management system. But that self management system needs to replace the eighth. That’s really, because if you want attention, maintaining or or initiating attention is very challenging, that really falls in the executive functioning kind of suite, which we know, executive functioning skills as being conscious, intentional behaviors are very challenging when you’ve got other challenges at play, right? How much energy? What’s your energy budget, you know, what are your stores that you have, if you burn through those quickly, what’s going to burn through those, that energy stores those energy stores quickly is conscious, volitional behavior where I have to pay attention. And I’ve got to bring it all to this one place. I mean, you can’t do that for very long, you know, and so this population, and this community tends to really need to work hard at that. And so we’ve got to be really mindful. So retention, so replacing, you know, aids with self management systems, and in the beginning, having that aid support the reinforcement of that management system, for example. And then, if that management system is not able to be internalized, then we know what kind of support this person needs, right? There’s no judgment there. But we don’t ever test those things before they leave the district when actually, that’s when the most robust support is occurring, especially if they’re supported the student supported under an IEP, the most robust support is occurring, because it’s all centralized, right, all the services are centralized, you will never get that again, not unless you leave the district and you go to a residential placement or some sort of program, we’re all you know, where all those services are centralized again, but that’s not for very long. Unless you know, that individual needs that level of support, then that’s okay. But for many, that transition from exiting the district out, is quite a cliff. So we got to prepare for that early. So anywhere that parents are supporting, I’d say the other thing too, is the good old mantra of Nothing about us without us. Right? Nothing about us. Without us, don’t do for us do with us. That needs to be another mantra mindset starting in high school. And I would say, Do not overlook household chores, Do not overlook being able to cook for yourself, Do not overlook those little things that are happening every day. Because your ability to take care of yourself and where you live, really, really helped with your self confidence really helped with your self reliance, your self trust. So many times I see. We’ve just kind of held our breath through high school because it’s challenging. And then I have a student, let’s say that might want to try it at college, and they go away, and they have no idea how to take care of themselves. And it’s a double whammy, right? Because not only are we transitioning to the huge burden of responsibility of learning, which shifts to the learner, the student, right, that’s overwhelming in and of itself. Now I’ve got to learn how to take care of myself. It’s a big transition. So my encouragement started in ninth grade and all the little things anytime a parent is doing something for their child, ask yourself, Wait a minute, can they do this for themselves? Choose one thing, just a little thing: waking up in the morning, making breakfast, helping you do laundry, taking up the trash knowing when something’s spoiled in the fridge? I’d you know Debbie, I mean like all of these things, there’s a lot of them. I’ve spent a lot of time creating an inventory to put them all together but those are the areas that don’t overlook the little things that kind of make up the day.
Debbie Reber 19:40
So even if there’s resistance around those things, and just from personal experience, I often will joke to my child if I you know make a coffee in the morning like oh my gosh, I’ll say after I am perpetuating learned helplessness right here, and Asher will say well, I mean, I know I could do it. But if you’re going to do it for me, why would I? I’m like, okay. My question is, with regards to the chores of those little things. If there’s resistance around it, that’s okay. Because what I heard you say is that the confidence gained by being able to do those things, they may not realize it at the time, but that’s actually really gonna support them.
Gwen Palafox 20:19
Yeah, yes, yes. And you know, there’s an interactive magic that happens, right. So the other piece that happens in facilitating autonomy, and agency and independence is an interactive process. It’s not just a parent saying you do. Great. You’re on your own. That is not how it works. I mean, speaking as a mother myself, right, where, where do I let go? How much do I let go? When do I let go, let’s say, is highly dependent upon how much I trust that my kid can do it. And the only way that I can trust that my kid can do X, whatever that is, is because I’ve seen them do it. I’m confident that they can do it. Right. So when parents don’t provide those very specific opportunities for their kids to do it, they don’t see their kids doing it. So it’s a conundrum, right? It’s like we kind of kept ourselves in this dynamic that has worked like, Yay, parents, good for you. Good, good on you for getting the support that they needed. Good on you for, for knowing what the accommodations were and putting this in a beautiful system. Yes, don’t stop doing that. I mean, you know, please don’t. The question is, where can you start to let some of that go. And sometimes the ratio of attention changes, right? It’s like, maybe I can let up on the coffee making. Because now I have to actually work on legal issues. Right? Do I conserve or not, right? Parents’ energy is also finite. We also have our own energy budgets. And so some of that does need to shift to other kinds of bigger issues like transportation, like money, like, safety, like health, when you know, we’ve got young people going out into the world on their own or away from their family home is what I should say, you know, we don’t want to overwhelm people. No one likes to feel overwhelmed. And so something that I talk about a lot is dripping demands, drip the demand one drip at a time, by you knowing your kiddo because parents know their kids. They know them, right? It’s like, what is that sweet spot? What is that sweet spot of I mean, I love Asher’s, you know, response? Well, why would I make it if you’re making it? It’s like, oh, that’s the sweet spot. Right? It, don’t you think like, that’s the sweet spot. And so for parents and their kids, it’s like, how do we schedule that? The other piece too, is how do you get aligned with goals, you know, talk to your kids about what goals they want for themselves later, in whatever capacity it is, you know, for non speakers out there. I you know, I encourage parents to narrate, oh, gosh, you know, so and so like, Gosh, I wonder what’s going to happen later. And I, I dream for you to have your own, like independent bespoke fulfilled purposeful life, you know, I want to help you create that, like, narrate those things, because we know that they feel all you know, they’re humans, right? We’re all humans, like, talk about those things, and get aligned with those things. Because I think if someone says, Yeah, I don’t want to live at home. Yeah, you know, I’m gonna move out. Yeah, I’m gonna go. I was just doing an assessment. And I said, What are your dreams? And she said, I want to live in a big apartment in New York City. And I just giggled, right, because I was like, listen, I mean, I totally believe that you’re gonna be able to live on your own. It’s the big apartment in New York City that I’m like, kind of giggling about, you know, because that talk about access, right, but, but yeah, you know, okay, you want to do that. But yet, you still want your mom to make you breakfast. So how do you align that? Like salt? Let’s solve this problem together. Right? So and then, you know, there’s some adults that are like, No, I don’t want to live on my own. And it’s like, we’ll talk about that. I think it’s like have conversations, have dialogues, as much as possible work together to focus on solutions. That’s where, you know, that’s where I really think you can really facilitate quite a bit of agency.
Debbie Reber 24:25
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Debbie Reber 25:32
So what about the young adults, the teens who are and I’ve heard this from so many people, I think, even more now, since COVID, that they don’t want to grow up the thought of leaving scares them, they kind of get paralyzed and anxious when thinking about what’s next. Even if they do have goals for that. So how do you support kids who are feeling scared and anxious? Yet we know that they need to have some self direction or be bought into this in order for this to be successful?
Gwen Palafox 26:04
Yeah, you know, self direction or internalized kind of motivation, right? comes from your lived experience. Right? So if you don’t have that initial kind of, like, out of the gate bias, which has, I mean, Debbie, that’s a lot of you know, and it’s normal to feel anxious about adulthood, it’s normal to feel anxious about burdens and responsibilities. I mean, you know, the world has like, the word adulting, as, as a word that’s been created, because it describes like a dog, being an adult is kind of a drag sometimes, right? So I totally get that. But we need to live the experience of being able to rely on ourselves before you can see yourself that way. So like, let’s say you don’t have you don’t have that kiddo who, from a thinking or thought perspective is like, like, I’m just gonna stay at home forever, you know, and it’s just going to be, it’s just going to be us. And as parents, like, know, I know, that down the road, this is their, this is where what’s going to be happening is I would say, Make small movements, get help. Hey, can you help me? Can you help me make this coffee? Can you help me make dinner? Can you help me take out the trash, and do that routinely? Right helped me, right, and then eventually transfer that over, and do it in small little ways. Like, again, drip it, it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. And I think we don’t want to overwhelm people, our community is overwhelmed. All along all the time, the world is an overwhelming place, if you’ve got a sensory sensitivity, I mean, good grief, you know. So get help and ask them for their help. Let them experience it, pull back in the smallest of ways. You know, the other thing that I say in my practice is add more rungs to the ladder. Right? Add more steps. Right? When something feels so far away, add more rungs, add more, and then you’ll get there. But sometimes, especially with individuals who have sensory motor challenges, we also need motor coaching. So, you know, that is, those are just considerations when we think about profiles, but yeah, get help.
Debbie Reber 28:25
I just have to share what has come up for me in that answer. And I may have shared this once in the podcast years ago, but back when I was homeschooling, Asher I think maybe it was like the summer between Fifth and Sixth grade, I decided this is the summer of independence. And I created a big chart of all the life skills that we were going to master that summer. And I showed it to my friend who was supporting my curriculum development. She’s like, Oh, Debbie, do not share that to your child. Like, get rid of the chart, no summer of independence that is going to create so much anxiety and I’m so glad that she told me. And so I have since learned about the trip, the slow drip, the little things, you know, Oh, can you help me? Can you do this and I have had so much success with that. But anyway, I had to share that because I hear this. A lot of parents were like, Okay, this summer, we’re going to cross these things off the list. And so often it’s just not our timeline and trying to force that it’s going to create even more resistance around learning those things.
Gwen Palafox 29:30
Yes, and you know, we want the energy flow to be going in a productive direction not in a in a in a guarded in, you know, you don’t want energy for walls, right? You want energy for things like roads, maybe sidewalks, maybe I mean, whatever that is, right. That’s where you want the energy to go. You know, I think a lot of times and what you’re bringing up here Debbie is emotions matter. Emotions. matter when we treat people as a stimulus or a response, or I say this, you do this. And if you don’t do this, you’re non compliant. It’s like, hold up. Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute, I wouldn’t respond well to that. Why do we believe that? Anyone else would? How about when you don’t have language, verbal language that’s efficient or reliable? When they’re trying to tell, you know, why do we say you’re paying non compliant and resistant? Hold up? Like what? So you know, my thing, especially if you can, it’s like, your child, as much as possible, should be included in the plans that involve their life, right? Nothing about us. Without us, not for us with us? What do you want to accomplish this summer? Think about that. As someone who loves productivity, I love that kind of stuff. I love setting goals. And what’s the plan? What’s my two year plan? My three year plan, my four and a half point five year plan, you know, but if I’ve got someone that I’m working with that has executive functioning challenges, or might be a very concrete, literal thinker, how in the world am I setting five year goals? That’s so abstract, they haven’t even lived that life, they don’t even have a lot of life that they’ve lived yet. How do I expect that that is even going to be an effective me that’s overwhelming, right. And this is what I find, even with some therapies, I’ll smash on my own as a psychologist, you know, Insight oriented work where we drive insight and that insight leads to behavior change. That is an overwhelming place for many that have different ways or, you know, as you would say, are wired differently. Right? Because that is, that’s not a productive way to think about the problems that I’m facing right now. Or the friction that I’m facing right now. That’s the solution to find right now. Not the one later, and that if I’ve got sensorimotor challenges, I think I would do it if I think I would do it if I could, right, that’s kind of going back to that initial assumption that I have, which is people are trying their dang best man. So when we can look at it through those eyes, we support people instead of judging them. And we teach them instead of testing them.
Debbie Reber 32:18
Yeah. Great reframes. You know, you’ve talked about life skills, you’ve talked about executive function. And I imagine that this looks different for every child, depending on their unique strengths and their unique wiring, their relative challenges and their lived experience. But are there other common challenges that neurodivergent teens face when transitioning to adulthood?
Gwen Palafox 32:43
Yeah, the two main areas that I’m heavily biased to look at is our executive functioning and social emotional skills. And when I talk about social emotional skills, you can even go back to the SEL frameworks, the social emotional learning frameworks, when I think that framework gives the five competencies, which are actually really nicely organized and research backed, right. We’ve got self awareness, self management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. You kind of see how all those work together. And it’s really, you know, it’s in the way it’s kind of in the process, in the way that that someone lives in the world. That’s what I really want to focus on, not the content, right? I know that most of my clients that I support can follow a list. Great. Can they stay calm? When do they follow that list? And they hit a bump? Do they know that they’re becoming frustrated or irritated? Do they know what to do with that? And do they know when to do that? Do they know who to ask? If they need help? Do they know what to ask for? And then actually do they use the help that they have gotten? Right? Those are the areas so social emotional learning and executive functioning are the two main kind of process cellular we woven things that I think are really important if I had to prioritize anything, if I had to choose hills to die on swords to fall on those would be the ones if I choose one sword, it would be social emotional skills every single time because I feel like those are the skills that bring you into every single situation in your life. I would say the other three little other areas that I find to be issues would be transportation, money, and safety, legal issues. Those are the other areas that I find to be difficult and really can impact the quality of someone’s life and of course in regards to safety, you know, under that health, like a you know, can I manage my medications if I have them getting doctor’s appointments, when I should see a doctor when I should go to the ER those types of things. Those are the other three main areas but if we want to talk about comfort and fulfillment And productivity and joy, social emotional skills every time.
Debbie Reber 35:05
Yeah, that makes so much sense. And if so, you know, as you’re talking about SEL, it’s also just painful to know that Sel is under attack right now in the United States. That’s a whole other conversation, and it’s one we will be having on the podcast this season. But I did want to ask this question. I have heard from so many parents whose kids have quote, unquote, launched, maybe they’ve left for college, fingers crossed, that things were going to come together and that it was going to work out. And then we know that statistically, there’s a pretty decent percentage of neurodivergent college students who leave even in their freshman year and come home and have burned out mental health issues, wondering what guidance you have for parents whose kids are kind of approaching that their child thinks, Okay, I’m ready to plow ahead. The parents have some concerns about what that’s going to look like, are there things we can do for ways to navigate, maybe best practices to bolster them for that launch? As much as possible?
Gwen Palafox 35:59
Yes, I would tell parents, there’s a reason why you’re worried. There’s a reason why you’re anxious, please do not suppress those feelings. And say, they’ll be fine. In other words, hoping for the best is not a good plan. It’s just not. There’s there’s too many factors. If there’s something you’re really worried about, for example, I’m really worried that you’re not. I’m really worried about you waking up in the morning and waking yourself up in the morning and like getting to what you need to do. I don’t know, like, that’s a really common worry, right? Have that conversation with your kid, have that conversation? Hey, I’m really worried about this, me. And because I’m worried about it, right? You know who I am, I’m a doer. I do things when I’m anxious. So I’m doing things. But I really want to create space for us to figure this out together, so that I can feel better about it. When you leave. When you plan to go away. I think it’s important to call out whose emotion it is. Because oftentimes, mom’s parents, what we do is we have worries, rightly so they’re coming from an honest place. And then we implement the summer of independence. Right, Debbie? Right, because, and then we kind of overwhelm. And we then we know that we look like naggers or over controllers, that that I would say is to have that conversation and then start to test, do little little things and just say like, Hey, in order to put my fears to rest, and for me to not be overbearing, or passive aggressive, or irritable or whatever, you know, as a parent, no, no, how you respond to your own stress and distress, right? Can we come up with an agreement? Can we come up with a solution? I think the thing here is that parents often don’t know what adult skills are specifically, they might lay on some of them, like you should be able to feed yourself, do your laundry. But sometimes we need to break down those things even more, like, emptying a dishwasher could be 95 steps, I’m not even kidding. It can be especially, I mean, one of my clients got up to 95 steps because of motor issues. But now they can empty the dishwasher on their own. But that’s just one example. Like, this is what I mean by longer runway, softer landings, like we need to start early and slowly so that we’re not overwhelmed. But we are being mindful. And so this audience is specifically a neuro diverse community. Right? You still need to measure this community against neurotypical fully independent individuals, if you really want to know where they’re going to be able to be fully independent, you do still need to do that. Because those are the skills that are necessary to live in the world. You know, a lot of times we don’t like to make those comparisons because it’s not really meaningful comparison. In this case, when you’re trying to figure out about independence, autonomy agency, leaving your home, you absolutely need to know, what are the skills that are necessary for a fully independent adults.
Debbie Reber 39:13
That’s great. And I also just want to put out there that Amanda Morin, who has been on the show before, has written a wonderful book on Adulting. And she is neurodivergent. She raises neurodivergent kiddos, and I’ll share that in the show notes because she really looks at some of those skills, too, that we can work through. But before we go, I would love it if you could talk a little bit about your right life system and kind of the specific way that you work with families who are navigating this. Could you just tell us a little bit about that?
Gwen Palafox 39:45
Yeah, yeah, for sure. So, you know, I do comprehensive transition assessments as part of my professional life. You know, when I do assessments, and I do consulting or individual work, as well. I can only do like, 20 of those a year. They’re extreme. really expensive? And then I was like, how do I solve a problem helping 20 people a year, you know, plus, it’s money. It’s out of the means for many, right? And so in my, in my, in my desperation and my desire to help more people, I created the Bright Light System. So basically, it’s a, it’s a really three step system. And the first the first you could do, you can do the bright light system on your own. I mean, it’s totally meant to be a self paced course. And the first is just understanding, how do I understand my child? How do I understand myself? And that’s really meant to that’s a thought exercise about how do I know what my How do I describe my kid? How do I describe myself? How do those two interact? Again, facilitating independence is interactive, right. And then the second step is doing an audit of skills. And there’s about 400 I, the last time I counted, there’s probably 420 skills across the living, learning and working areas of adult life. And when we think about transition, those are the three main areas of life with most of those skills falling under the living category. And it’s really its own curriculum, if you will, each skill is literally a skill, one skill. And that can be used as a curriculum, so many people have used the bright life systems inventory, and pulled out individual skills to use in IEPs. And in IPPS, here in California, we have a regional center. So that would be included in a regional center kind of plan. And then the last step is to plan and prioritize. And so based on that, based on you, knowing who your kid is today, who you are today, getting a good inventory of skills, you should be able to come up with next action steps about where to go. And the inventory really does help. And the system does help to show you where some of the weaknesses are. And then it’s really meant to be done over and over again. So it’s really meant to do at minimum once a year, maybe on a birthday during an IEP on the New Year, so that you can really see it and see the progression. And then it’s really easy then to land, what services and supports will be needed for your child when they are adults. And they leave the district setting. Because you’ll see that you’ve applied work and energy and attention there. And you know, money is just not going to be it. We just got to develop a system around money, and that’s okay. But at least we know, right, we don’t have to guess.
Debbie Reber 42:35
That’s great. I’m gonna go check that out. It sounds fantastic, like a wonderful resource. And for listeners who want to learn more about you, we discussed off the record about the social media scene and where we’re focusing our energies in our respective worlds, but tell listeners where they can best engage with you and learn more about the bright life system and your work.
Gwen Palafox 42:54
Yeah, okay. So this is indicative of me trying to get my public life and social life together. So I apologize. My main website is www.meaningfulgrowth.com. That’s what I’ve functioned under for a very long time. But I also have, so that’s a good place to like, kind of statically get, like who I am and what’s happening for me what services I provide, you can find the bright life system there. I have my own podcast, and I do a lot of collecting bits and goods that I believe will help just one of my clients. I will put it up there. And that is on YouTube at Dr. Gwen Empowered. You can also find me @drgwenempowered on Instagram as well. We’ll probably do more updating of more current, you know of things. But those are good ways to find me.
Debbie Reber 43:44
That’s awesome. Thank you, listeners, definitely go check out Gwen’s resources. The YouTube channel alone has some really fascinating conversations, and definitely worth checking out. And before we say goodbye, is there anything that we didn’t mention, or one last thought that you really want parents to take away from this conversation.
Gwen Palafox 44:03
Don’t underestimate the small movements. If you’re overwhelmed, and feeling overwhelmed, keep doing something small. That’s it. That’s it. And that will be enough. And that you are doing the best you can given what you have at this time. And when you look back, you can say the same thing. And you move forward and you surround yourself by wonderful support systems like tilt up parenting and keep doing the little things.
Debbie Reber 44:32
Such a good note to end this on. Thank you so much. I’m so glad that we have connected that you are now in my world to my orbit and that I could share you with the listeners of till and just for the work that you do. It’s such important work and I’m just so thrilled to be able to learn more about what you’re doing and tune people in to you.
Gwen Palafox 44:51
Thank you, Debbie and I’m honored to be part of your community as well. So thank you for including me.
Debbie Reber 44:59
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