The transition from high school to post-secondary education can be overwhelming. There are several different pathways to success for your loved one, including a specialized post-secondary experience for non-degree seeking students to provide them with a college campus experience, programs that focus primarily on life skills, certificate programs, technical schools, community colleges, or a four-year university. Success after high school for some students might include going straight to supported or customized employment.
In order to decide what post-secondary options would be best for your child, it is important to carefully analyze your child’s functioning in a variety of areas. As you do this, think about the extent to which your child does these activities independently (without reminders or prompts). You will also want to keep in mind the setting(s) in which he/she is able to perform these skills. How many students are in his/her current class(es)? Are there additional assistants in the class or is your child assigned a para-professional? What are you child’s academic skills? Can he/she keep up with the pace in a general education classroom or does he/she require content presented at a slower pace? Do you need to help your child remember to turn in assignments, assist them in completing homework, remind them to brush their teeth, shower, or change into clean clothing? Is your child able to independently make doctor’s appointments, take their medication without reminders, wake up and get ready for school without your assistance? Keep in mind that the adaptive behavior (independent living skills) of individuals with autism spectrum disorder is lower than their intelligence quotient (IQ) scores in adolescence and adulthood (Viezel, Free, & Morgan, 2022; Widman & Lopez-Reyna, 2020). Then assess the demands of the next environment as well as the available supports. Be careful not to make assumptions about supports because in adulthood there is no entitlement to enough supports to ensure an individual’s success. Once you have assessed your child’s current support needs you can use them as a guide to select the appropriate pathway as an adult.
High school graduates who are fairly independent and possess the cognitive and adaptive skills may consider attaining a college degree, whether two or four years. Most colleges have a disabilities department which can provide accommodations for disabled students. If you are thinking of transitioning to college, keep in mind that organizational and time management skills are probably as important for success as academic skills. In addition, colleges require for the student to self-advocate, access disability services and provide professors with documentation regarding their accommodations. Students who possess the academic skills to attend college but need more support might consider looking for a college with a specific autism support program that can support organizational skills and bridge the gap between the student and the school faculty.
In general, community colleges are a good stepping stone for those who want to go to college. Often the classes are relatively small, community colleges tend to be accommodating and, in general, serve a lot of students who have challenges adjusting to the changes in college expectations to those in high school.
Another educational option that might be appropriate would be the certificate or technical school. Some certificate programs may be designed for students with special needs and go at a slower pace that allows students to master the curriculum. Certificate programs and technical schools often provide the majority of instruction in class and focus on one specific course or content area; therefore, the program might be more manageable for students with organizational and time management challenges (OAR, 2021).
Students who are not candidates for a college degree due to cognitive functioning but are able to navigate a college campus independently may be able to attend a special program for non-degree seeking students. Several universities have developed programs on their campuses that provide for students with special needs to audit classes, live on campus, and learn skills for independence, even if they are not pursuing a degree. Individuals who need higher levels of support might consider post-secondary day and residential programs that focus on independent living skills, recreational skills, work skills, social skills, and executive functioning skills. Finally, some individuals might opt to find a supported or customized work experience with the help of their local Department of Vocational Rehabilitation.
Although parents often feel overwhelmed by the transition to adulthood, there are many different options to achieve a positive outcome. As a parent it is important to be realistic, objective, and flexible, and if you begin by understanding your child’s abilities and their support needs you will find a pathway that will lead to success and happiness for your autistic adult.
Diane Adreon is an EdD at The Daniel Jordan Fiddle Foundation for Transition and Adult Programs, University of Miami. For more information, contact Diane Adreon at firstname.lastname@example.org or (305) 284-6556.
Jennifer Feinstien is a caseworker at the Nova Southeastern University Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (UM-NSU CARD). For more information, contact Jennifer Feinstein at email@example.com or (305)284-3734.
Organization for Autism Research (2021). Life journey through autism: A guide for transition to adulthood (2nd edition). Organization for Autism Research.
Viezel, K.D., Free, B., & Morgan, C.D. (2022). Adaptive behavior of college students with autism. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities 37(1), 56-65. DOI: 10.1177/10883576211056291
Widman, C.J. & Lopez-Reyna (2020). Supports for post-secondary students with autism spectrum disorder: A systematic review. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders (50), 3166-3178. DOI:10.1007/510803-020-04409-3