For many higher functioning individuals on the autism spectrum and their families, the road to independence and adulthood can be very puzzling. Although the student may possess the intellectual ability and be “otherwise qualified” to attend college or post-secondary vocational training, their transition to adulthood is often not a linear process. Most high school students progress directly to college or vocational training once they complete their secondary education. For high functioning individuals on the spectrum certain aspects of their disability impede success in a post-secondary environment. Comprehensive Transition and Post-secondary (CTP) programs may serve as a bridge between high school and college or vocational training.
Recent changes to the Higher Education Opportunities Act, P.L. 110-315, (2008) have resulted in greater access to college programs to students with intellectual disabilities (ID), including those on the autism spectrum. Prior to the amendments to HEOA, only students who were enrolled full time in a degree bearing program were eligible to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) under title IV of Federal Student Aid (The FAFSA form is the gateway to all federal student aid). This precluded many students on the spectrum who could not meet the full- time student requirement. Impairment in executive functioning skills often interferes with a student’s ability to maintain a full-time course load of credit bearing classes. Under the new guidelines established by the changes in the HEOA, students with an Intellectual Disability can be eligible for certain specific types of federal financial aid if they are enrolled full time in a Comprehensive Transition and Post-secondary program that is approved by the U.S Department of Education.
Students with ASDs, who are otherwise qualified for college admissions, often do not struggle with the academic demands. The structure of the coursework is very familiar to them. Rather, it is the level of independence and lack of structural supports that interferes with a student’s success. In a college environment they do not find the supports and safe guards of the special education system. The student must provide his or her own structure in an educational environment that is highly variable (e.g. a student may have a different class schedule every day of the week). Social skills are another major area where students with ASDs struggle in the college environment. A student with an ASD may be used to interrupting and asking questions of a teacher in a small high school class setting. However, at college it may not be appropriate to ask questions during a lecture in an auditorium filled with dozens, or even hundreds of other students.
Living in a residence hall can be particularly stressful for students on the spectrum who have to negotiate sharing living space, eating in a cafeteria with foods that are not home-made, and the noise levels associated with communal living. A lack of Independent living skills can interfere with a student’s success at college or vocational training. Students frequently struggle with setting an alarm clock, managing their time, traveling independently to and from classes and home, organizing their room and possessions, money management, and laundry. Finally, students with ASDs struggle with vocational skills such as job search skills, interviewing techniques, dressing appropriately for work, and work place decorum.
Comprehensive Transition and Post-secondary programs are designed to help students with an Intellectual Disability address their impairments in executive functioning, as well as their social, independent living, and vocational skills. This is all done within the context of the college environment. Students in a federally approved CTP are expected to spend over ½ of their classroom and experiential time alongside their neurotypical peers. This can be done on a class by class basis, semester by semester basis or over the course of the entire program. CTPs structures will vary from college to college. The college will determine not only the structure of the program, but also what constitutes an Intellectual Disability (ID) and what documentation the student must provide to establish evidence of an ID (within certain limitations established by the legislation). The student however, must have a history of being eligible for a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
Parents working collaboratively with school districts have the opportunity to create an Independent Educational Program (IEP) with a transition plan that can incorporate a Comprehensive Transition and Post-secondary program as an end goal for a student with an ASD. As the student progresses through their high school years, IEP goals should target social, independent living, and vocational skills acquisition. These goals are often very difficult for school districts to attain. They require a substantial amount of time and require hours of practice that are not always feasible in the confines of a school day. CTPs can help school districts with these goals because they provide an environment in which the student must practice these skills on a daily basis. Living in a residence hall requires a student with ASDs to interact and practice social skills. Being away from home requires the student to practice managing his or her own time and money, cleaning his or her own room and doing his or her own laundry.
Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004, Congress specified what qualified as transition services, which included college-based transition programs. During the commentary process, The U.S. Department of Education staff also clarified that funds from parts A & B of IDEIA can be used to fund community or college-based transition programs. (Please see Assistance to the states for the Education of Children with Disabilities, 2006). The US DOE went on to clarify that IEP teams have always had this ability. It is the IEP team, with the parents and student as members, who determine how to attain the IEP goals. If the IEP team determines that a CTP is an appropriate means to meet the student’s IEP goals, then funds from the school district can be used to support the program.
Students with ASDs and other Intellectual Disabilities (ID) may have a longer trajectory than their neurotypical peers in transitioning into adulthood and reaching independence. A well-conceived transition plan for a qualified student with an ASD can provide funding through the school district through the student’s 21st birthday for a CTP, and then, with the recent changes to HEOA the student may be eligible for Federal Student Aid if he or she is enrolled in a federally approved CTP.
It is important to note that Funds under IDEIA and HEOA may not be used simultaneously. It must also be noted that funding for a CTP under HEOA is limited to Federal Pell grants, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG) and the Federal Work Study program. Currently, students with ID are NOT eligible for federal loan programs. The funding under title IV of HEOA may NOT be used by a student who is currently being funded by a school district under IDEA. To complete the FAFSA, students must go to www.fafsa.gov and enter a federal school code for the college that has an approved CTP. All students must obtain a Personal Identification Number (PIN that serves as the student’s electronic signature at www.pin.ed.gov. If the student is a dependent (under the age of 24), the student’s parent must also obtain his or her own unique PIN and is required to provide an electronic signature for the FAFSA. So far, no States have developed comparable tuition assistance programs in response to this new legislation.
As of February 1, 2012, only 10 colleges in the United States have been approved by the U.S. Department of Education to provide Comprehensive Transition and Post-secondary programs to students with Intellectual Disabilities. For an updated and complete listing of federally approved CTPs, please visit: http://studentaid.ed.gov/PORTALSWebApp/students/english/CTPProgramList.jsp.
New York Institute of Technology is proud to announce that its Vocational Independence Program (VIP) is the first CTP in the State of New York to receive this prestigious distinction and only the second college in the entire Northeast to receive this designation. For more information about the Vocational Independence Program, visit: www.nyit.edu/vip.
Assistance to States for the Education of Children with Disabilities and Preschool Grants for Children with Disabilities, 71 Federal Register, 46668 (2006)( to be codified as 34 CFR Parts 300 and 301)
Authors’ Note: the author would like to thank Dr. Judy Shanley, U.S Department of Education, Office of Post-secondary Education, for providing the technical information contained in this article.
Paul Cavanagh, PhD, MSW is the Director of Academics and Evaluation at New York Institute of Technology Vocational Independence Program. Ernst VanBergeijk, PhD, MSW is the Associate Dean and Executive Director at New York Institute of Technology Vocational Independence Program.