Ask the Expert: Planning the Transition to Adulthood
~ Marc Ellison, Ed.D, LPC
Executive Director, Autism Training Center at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia

Transitions –especially those important milestones many of us experience as we grow older – can overwhelm even the most prepared among us. Regular routine is comforting, but most people experience a handful of life-altering transitions during their lifetime. We progress through – and finally out of – school, and face changes in relationships, finances, employment, and living environments. Learning to anticipate and plan our transition into adulthood may well be key to living a life of quality.

The National Autism Indicators Report (developed in 2015 by the Drexel Autism Institute at Drexel University) quantified what many have experienced for decades: individuals diagnosed with ASD face significant challenges in their transition to adulthood. The research revealed young adults with ASD face barriers related to employment, housing, relationships, and continued education after high school.

The results from this report paint a potentially stark picture for students diagnosed with ASD who are preparing to leave the classroom. After having access to school-based supports and therapeutic services while in public schools, those graduating out of school face a lifetime during which community-based service and supports have no mandate. Poor transition planning may compound poor outcomes: the National Autism Indicators Report found “only 58% of students with ASD had a transition plan in place by the federally required age.”

The transition from school to adulthood is most effective: when it is planned early; when it is developed by a dedicated team; and when the effort has a true student-centered focus. Some considerations for transition planning:

Plan Early: Federal law requires a formal transition plan be in place by age 16 for students protected by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA). It is highly recommended that transition planning begin earlier – at age 14 – for students with ASD. This timeline allows for deeper assessments of interests and broader opportunity for practical skill-based training. Planning early also provides ample time to amend and alter a plan when evidence suggests that’s necessary.

Team-Based Decision Making: Students with ASD (and every student, really) are better supported by a body of people who can focus on that student their attention, differing expertise, and varied experiences. Obviously, teams should be comprised of family members, educators, and school personnel who know the student’s abilities and interests. However, it’s also important to include team members who can provide resources to help facilitate the transition process. Transition teams should include representative from the regional Vocational Rehabilitation office. Vocational Rehabilitation is a Federal program with regional offices in each state. (Offices are commonly called different names in different states. For example, in West Virginia the Vocational Rehabilitation offices are titled “Division of Rehabilitation Services.”) Rehabilitation counselors can provide resources and assessment expertise integral to the transition process.

Keep It Student-Focused: In addition to being philosophically sound, a student-focused approach helps build an individualized infrastructure necessary for a successful outcome. Transition teams can be student-focused, in part, by:

· Developing a vision of what the student’s “life of quality” looks like, then using that information to plan transition goals and strategies that support progress toward that vision;

· Completing a holistic assessment of student interest and skill in areas such as “Employment,” “Education,” “Community Living” and “Community Integration,” and developing specific goals built around those interests;

· Identifying student strengths that will serve the student in reaching his or her vision, and challenges that may create barriers;

· Providing broad-based practical experiences early in the transition process from which students can learn skills and increase interest, and then using those experiences to build toward the ultimate vision.

There are a number of resources available that can aid students and the team in developing a sound and effective transition plan. Two of the best and most useful follow. Both can be retrieved for free via the Internet.

1. Life Journey Through Autism: A Guide For Transition To Adulthood (Organization for Autism Research, in collaboration with Danya International & the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center 2006)
2. Rehabilitation of Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (32nd Institute on Rehabilitation Issues, 2007)