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Helping Older Students With Special Needs Transition Into the Adult World

By Alan Harchik, Ph.D., BCBA

When a student with autism or other developmental disabilities reaches his or her 22nd birthday, the public school system is no longer responsible for providing special education and other services. At that point, the student has "aged out" of the educational system and will enter into the adult service system.

There are two important differences between the child and adult service systems that parents should be aware of:

First, special education for children is an entitlement program that provides services based upon the child's needs. Cost cannot be used as a reason to deny special education services for children. For adults, services are based upon money that has been assigned by the state legislature. Adult services are not automatically available. Multiple factors - such as the amount of money budgeted, and the number of students turning 22 - impact the availability of services.

Second, less focus is placed upon instructional activities for adults. Many children have 30 or more objectives in their Individual Education Plan (IEP). For adults, the number might drop to less than 10. Adult services focus upon the individual's quality of life, including meaningful membership in the community, the development and maintenance of personal relationships, and personal well-being

When a child approaches adulthood, long-term legal and financial planning should begin. In particular, parents need to consider whether full or partial guardianship is appropriate for their son or daughter. Also, each student should apply for federal benefits, such as Social Security.

Proper planning is vitally important to help increase the likelihood that young adults with special needs will succeed in the adult world. This planning must begin many years prior to the child's 22nd birthday, and involves an understanding of the state law referred to as Chapter 688. This is a planning process that brings together the school system, the student and family, and one of the state's adult agencies to create an Individual Transition Plan (ITP). Typically, the Department of Mental Retardation (DMR) is the state agency selected for most students with autism and other developmental disabilities. Sometimes the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission (MRC) participates.

Important points to consider regarding Chapter 688 include:

- The process of transition must be initiated by the school district and has to occur at least two years prior to the date the student will "age out" of the educational system. Parents who are concerned about the timing of the referral should contact both the school system and the local DMR area office.

- Students must meet the agency's eligibility requirements before they can receive adult services. DMR has an age 18 requirement, so the referral should be made at or around the student's 18th birthday.

- The DMR cannot begin the ITP process until adult eligibility for DMR services is established. The ITP describes the types of support services the individual will need after leaving school (actual implementation depends upon funding availability).

- Parents should carefully consider the advisability of the student leaving school prior to age 22. Entitlement services end when the student leaves school. Moreover, the last two years of in the school system can be invaluable, providing students with increased exposure to career development and work experiences.

- DMR services that have been provided before the student turns 22, such as family support services, will not necessarily continue after the student turns 22. For the family to continue to receive the DMR services, the student will need to go through the adult eligibility process described above.

- Not all students qualify for Chapter 688 activities. However, a request for services can be made directly to any human services agency, separate from the 688 process.

In summary, transitioning to adulthood can be a stressful time for young adults with autism and other developmental disabilities and their families. Becoming informed and starting early are the best ways to increase the likelihood of a successful transition. The following resources can be helpful during the planning process:
www.mass.gov/dmr (Massachusetts Department of Mental Retardation)
www.fcsn.org (The Federation for Children With Special Needs)

May Institute operates schools for children and adolescents with autism and other developmental disabilities in Chatham, Randolph, West Springfield, and Woburn, Mass., and in Freeport, Maine. The Institute also provides residential and day services for adults. For more information, call 800-778-7601, or visit www.mayinstitute.org.

Dr. Harchik can be contacted in West Springfield at 413-734-0300, or at aharchik@mayinstitute.org.

The information presented on this site is intended solely as a general educational aid, and is neither medical nor healthcare advice for any individual problem, nor a substitute for medical or other professional advice and services from a qualified healthcare provider familiar with your unique circumstances. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare professional regarding any medical condition and before starting any new treatment.

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