Early adulthood is a critical period for young adults with ASD and their families. Although students have been preparing for transition for many years, the process takes on new urgency as adulthood is imminent. Families know that much is at stake in shaping the course of students’ futures.
The years between a student’s 18th and 21st birthday are a particularly important time for taking concrete steps toward career development and post-secondary education. Those four years, during which students continue to receive funding and services, should be a time of careful planning and time allocation, with the goal of marshalling available resources to obtain valuable skills.
Unfortunately, this vital period is often one in which students are the least well-served. Many students graduate from high school only to return to what is essentially a recycled high school program. During important years for growth and skill development, these students are in effect “treading water.”
Programs dedicated solely to meeting the needs of transitioning students 18-21 offer so much more. They celebrate the newfound sense of accomplishment and maturity students feel on leaving high school and they support students’ social and recreational needs with appropriate activities and events. But most importantly, they prepare young adults for adulthood through a well-planned educational and vocational skill-development program individualized to each student’s aspirations and abilities.
Choosing a transition program can be difficult, but finding the right program can help families to utilize the 18-21 years effectively. Tenets of a strong transition program include: realistic goal setting, a deep knowledge of area resources, a network of support, an emphasis on self-advocacy, and addressing the needs of “the whole person.”
Realistic Goal Setting
The right transition program will serve students with a range of capabilities and aspirations and meet their needs. Some students need practice developing life skills, while others need college support. While we, as educators, want to set goals that will stretch students and help them fulfill their potential, we never want them to “break.” We must be conscious of their individual needs and capabilities, and, in some cases, factors such as comorbid anxiety and depression which may challenge them. We must know our students very well. By knowing their capabilities, strengths, and challenges, we establish realistic and achievable goals in partnership with them and their parents – an important part of the transition process. Some students and their families may need encouragement to consider college, while some students who would like to attend college may not have the capacity, putting us in the unpleasant position of being a “dream changer.” In these cases, we seek alternatives in line with a student’s abilities and interests, which will allow him or her to find satisfaction while not continuing to pursue an avenue that will waste time, money, and energy. Students need to balance their strengths, acknowledge their needs, and find accommodations that will assist them in life. The impact of ASD on their lives is a fact but what they do to handle it can make a big difference in the quality of their adult lives. At a strong transition program, we can navigate these tensions and individualize transition planning to each student’s needs.
Deep Knowledge of Area Resources
Planning for transition can sometimes seem like a chess game in which knowledge and tactical skill contribute to a winning strategy. Educators at a strong transition program draw on deep and varied experience with community resources, organizations, and educational entities to be creative in finding ways for students with ASD to progress toward their goals.
Consider “Henry,” a student with a strong interest in becoming a veterinary technician. There is an excellent and highly competitive vet tech program in his region, but Henry is not ready to enter it. Rather than give up on his dream, his teachers identified a less strenuous vet tech program at a local vocational-technical school and prepared him to enter it. After completing that program, he entered his local community college and took additional academic coursework. With a record of success and experience handling college coursework, Henry was then admitted to the originally desired, competitive vet tech program, where he has been highly successful and received awards for his performance. The transition program staff’s knowledge of the reputations, entry requirements and demands of the various programs made it possible for Henry to find a path to achieving his dream.
In another case, “Emily” hoped to receive a degree in childcare in order to work in a childcare center. She applied to her local vocational-technical school but her application was denied. The teachers at her transition center were able to successfully advocate for her admission by arranging a meeting with educators at the school for her, at which she was able to allay the school’s concerns about her ability to meet the requirements. She completed the program successfully and has since transferred to a 2-year college, from which she plans to eventually transfer to a 4-year college. Had she and her family accepted the original “no” decision from the vocational-technical school, Emily’s future would look quite different.
A Network of Support
In advising students, transition educators often have valuable information to share from their contacts at local community colleges and through experiences shared by former and current students. This can supplement and expand beyond the advising services offered by the colleges themselves. For example, educators at a strong transition program may know from experience that it is best if students begin college coursework in the fall rather than the summer semester, since the intensity of the shorter summer courses creates a more difficult adjustment for transitioning students.
An Emphasis on Self-Advocacy
One of the goals of any strong transition program should be helping students develop the self-advocacy skills they will need throughout their lives. Post secondary education and vocational training offer many opportunities to practice self-advocacy. For example, in a community college setting, “class participation” requirements can pose a problem for students with autism, who may find it difficult to express themselves in front of a group. A transition program can advise students on self-advocacy strategies to proactively address this issue. One strategy would be for the student to write a letter to the professor at the beginning of the course asking if he/she can to turn in written notes or responses to fulfill the participation requirement. Often, once a student has made the professor aware of the student’s challenges, the professor will make an effort to elicit comments and provide encouragement and support in class discussions. Writing letters to professors which explain challenges or differences and offer alternative solutions is a powerful strategy for managing issues before they arise.
Addressing the Needs of “The Whole Person”
Our job as educators of students with ASD is to prepare our students for the future, which encompasses so much more than academics. For example, some students may have poor hygiene or dress messily, which may be incompatible with being hired or holding a job. A program addresses important unwritten work skills like appropriate behavior in the workplace and important details like clothing choice, hygiene, and hair style. Looking clean, neat, and appropriate to the situation is a crucial skill for school or in the workplace.
In addition, social support and contact with peers is important and motivating to many students. The existence of a peer cohort gives students social support, familiar faces, and “strength in numbers.” At many transition centers, there are opportunities for socialization, recreation and friendship including holiday parties, dances and casual recreational opportunities. Skills such as developing friendships, self-control and regulation, communication, problem solving, and developing interests and hobbies will enrich their lives as adults, and since students do not intuitively pick up these skills, they must be taught.
Strong transition programs should help a student and his or her family set realistic goals, figure out how best to achieve them, provide support and self-advocacy training along the way, and address the student’s social, emotional, and recreational needs. Adult agencies are for the most part underfunded, overwhelmed, and do not offer the support that has typically been offered to students while in school. This means that taking advantage of the time in school during the 18-21 period is absolutely necessary to a successful transition. Programs offered by schools that meet the tenets described here are usually far superior to the types of programs that can be accessed as an adult, and for many families the cost of well-developed post-21 programs is prohibitive. The 18-21 period is a critical time for shaping a student’s future, and a strong transition program can be a powerful ally in that process.
Jacque Murray, MA, MEd, is the Director of the Vanguard Transition Center. She has 34 years of experience as a teacher and administrator at The Vanguard School and the Vanguard Transition Center. She also teaches graduate and undergraduate classes in special education and autism at Eastern University.
The Vanguard Transition Center (www.vanguardschool-pa.org/vtc), a program of Valley Forge Educational Services, offers opportunities for post-secondary education, career development, and social and life skills development to adults ages 18-21 who have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders, mild emotional disturbance, and/or neurological impairments. Students receive continuing education, counseling, self-advocacy training, therapies, and career experience.