For families of adolescents with autism and other intellectual and developmental disabilities, planning for the future may seem particularly daunting. Parents are often faced with questions about what lies ahead for their son or daughter as they prepare to “age out” of their school district and transition into adulthood.
Perhaps the most pressing question at the forefront of a parent’s mind is what programs and services are available to assist their son or daughter’s transition into adulthood and develop the necessary skills required for adult life. But even before looking into transition programs and services, the student’s goals should first be established.
Planning for Transition
It is never too early for parents and their sons or daughters to start planning for the future. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 2004, transition planning must be included in the first Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that will be in effect when the student turns 16. However, the planning process can begin at an earlier age, if determined appropriate.
The transition planning process should involve a team of people working together to establish the student’s goals for his or her future. This team—known as the IEP team—should include parents or guardians, the student, school personnel and other professionals who work directly with the student.
IEPs must focus on measurable goals of both an academic and functional nature. As such, it is important to involve the student in the process as much as possible. Any known interests, passions or personal goals should be at the heart of transition planning.
After goals are identified, the IEP team should consider the services and strategies that are needed to assist the student achieve success as they transition from school to adult life. Factors include potential staffing requirements and one-to-one supports.
Preparing for Transition at Home
If one of the student’s goals is to live independently or to share a home with a roommate, there are steps that can be taken within the family home in preparation. Parents can create increased opportunities for their son or daughter to practice tasks and skills that are necessary for independent living. These can include doing their own laundry, setting medication reminders, preparing basic meals, making grocery lists, and learning to complete basic household chores.
The key is to start small and focus on building routines and strategies where the individual is not dependent upon others. Practicing in the home provides the student with a safe and supportive environment in which they can make mistakes, and more importantly, learn from them.
Parents can also incorporate opportunities for their son or daughter to demonstrate their skills outside of the family home. As an example, the student can accompany their parents to the grocery store and select items off a grocery list they prepared.
The Vocational Factor
For some individuals, employment is a key component of adulthood. If a student expresses a desire to work, there are steps that can be taken as part of the transition process to help them realize this goal.
It is important to first talk with the student about their vocational interests and goals. From there, the IEP team should seek out a variety of community-based work experiences that may suit the student’s interests. These can include volunteer positions, employment assessments, internships or paid employment.
Work opportunities that align with the student’s interests and skills may be limited or difficult to secure given the current job market. But do not abandon the student’s goal to work. Cast a wider net and explore a range of opportunities.
The more work experiences a student has, the better. By exposing the student to a variety of environments, he or she may discover a passion for something they might not have otherwise considered.
Living within a community is an integral element of adulthood, and therefore, an essential element of the transition process. Students should be provided with ample opportunities to access the community and the various community-based resources available to them, such as libraries, reaction activities and public transportation.
By routinely utilizing community resources, students will learn new systems and gain vital experience, from how to successfully navigate the community to interacting with other individuals in the community setting.
Choosing the Right Program
There are a multitude of factors to take into consideration when selecting a transition program. Chief among these is how much support the student will need based on his or her level of ability. For example, does he or she require 24-hour supports? Would the student be better served in a short-term program or one that offers life-long services?
Another important point of consideration for many parents is the range of services available to their son or daughter. For instance, does the program provide a vocational training component? How are students’ social skills developed and strengthened? Are counseling services offered? Does the program incorporate community-based training opportunities?
It is also helpful to know the staff-student ratio and what the overall attitude is among the staff toward collaborating with parents.
Bringing the process full circle, it is important to take the student’s identified goals into consideration when deciding on a program—the same goals that were established at the start of the transition planning process. Selecting a program that best suits the student’s individual needs and goals is a major life decision and, once again, a team approach is recommended.
Researching transition programs involves diligence. A helpful online resource is the Network of Post-Secondary Programs (www.specialneedsprograms.org). But research should extend beyond the Web.
Just as college-bound students and their families visit multiple universities, parents of young adults in transition are encouraged to visit a variety of programs with their son or daughter and take campus tours. Families are also encouraged to ask around. Speaking to other families about different programs and their personal experiences can provide helpful insight.
Funding is another factor many families need to consider—especially if looking out-of-state or at a program that provides life-long services—and is a topic that that can raise many questions. Will the school district cover the cost of tuition? Can a student use in-state benefits funding out of state? These are some of the questions families may find themselves needing to ask.
Regardless of which transition program is selected, parents should know what benefits and entitlements their son or daughter may be eligible for, on both a local and national level. Federal benefits include Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). More information about both programs is available online. (www.ssa.gov/disability/).
Vanessa Pereira is Organizational Communications Coordinator and Stephen Kumnick is Director of Admissions, Marketing and Business Development at Vista Life Innovations.
Accredited by the National Commission for the Accreditation of Special Education Services (NCASES), Vista Life Innovations is a post-secondary program supporting the personal success of individuals with disabilities throughout various stages of life. For more information about Vista’s programs and services, visit www.vistalifeinnovations.org.
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. (2004) U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs 10.04.06. http://idea-b.ed.gov/uploads/IEP_Team_and_Changes_to_the_IEP_10-4-06.pdf