Life After High School… So Now What?
Contributed by Kim Davis, M.S.
School is the beginning offormalized education. For students on the autism spectrum, theireducation is planned very carefully to meet the goals and objectives thatparents and teachers create as the school journey begins. Most parentswant to ensure their child has as much access to as many academic courses aspossible. The emphasis can become focused on a year-to-year plan thatincorporates academics and, hopefully, building friendships. As parentsand teachers focus on the annual goals and objectives, the bigger picture ofthe future can become lost. The focus on the here and now becomes primaryrather than looking at the true big picture of what the future will hold foreach student. Individualized Education Program (IEP) goals might bewritten with a priority on the student to graduate with a diploma. Parents work hard to oversee that homework is completed on time, to stay on topof assignments and when exams will occur, and what to study in hopes ofobtaining high marks to ensure the diploma. Parents know that raising a childwith ASD (or any child for that matter), is a huge responsibility that has manyups and downs. To finally reach high school with the prospect ofreceiving a diploma is a dream that can come true for many children with ASDand their families. But, then what happens?
There is a process called TransitionPlanning and it legally begins when the student turns 14. At that pointthe IEP begins to incorporate an ITP or Individual Transition Plan. Whilethis process legally begins at age 14, transitioning from public school intothe adult/real world is a process that teachers, and especially parents, mustconsider from an early age. The Transition Plan is a process, not just ameeting, that happens once a year. Teachers and, especially, parents must beextremely thoughtful when making decisions about the child's goals from anearly age. They have to envision the future. As time presses ontowards the end of the public school years, parents will have to decide whichtract (diploma or certificate) their child will follow. Their decisionswill impact the life of their child. Sadly, many support teams do notthink about the future outside of the school years. So when thetransition plan "suddenly" happens, parents are ill prepared to make lifealtering decisions.
There is a passage in the law thatstates the transition IEP is "driven by an understanding of the student's needsonce s/he leaves high school." That statement may not always receive theattention it deserves. While predicting the future is difficult, it isimportant to begin to prepare the child for the future early on. There isa saying, "you can't prepare the road for the child; but you can prepare thechild for the road" and this is true for students with ASD. They may needmore support to participate in life after high school with all of itsopportunities as well as the challenges. The transition IEP can establishways in which each student will receive the educational components that willhelp prepare him/her for life after school.
Many times there is littleconcentration on what happens once high school is completed. When isthere time to talk about the future? The sad fact is the future arrivestoo soon and any preparation that the student with ASD needs in order to besuccessful in life may happen too late, if it happens at all. This isespecially true for those students who are on the diploma track in highschool. Everyone works incredibly hard in order to make graduation with adiploma happen. Graduation itself can be a great celebration. However when the balloon pops and the reality of no more classes, dailyroutines, or consistent interaction with friends sets in; life can becomeoverwhelming once again for the student, family, and friends.
How can the team (school and/orcommunity members) that supports an individual with ASD and the familycontemplate the future and also implement the teaching of necessary lifelearning skills? It is not an easy question to answer because everystudent is different and therefore, their future needs are different. Thefirst step is involving the student in those conversations when possible. These conversations should include any communication accommodations that arenecessary so they are actively involved in the conversation. Topics mightaddress what they think they would like to do once school is finished. Dothey want to go on to college? Do they want to take classes online instead ofgoing to an actual school, or do they want to work? If so, what type ofjob are they interested in, etc.? What can the local community do tosupport the individual's interests and strengths? These are questionsthat parents explore with their non-disabled children but frequently omit indiscussions with their child with ASD. Asking these questions are thosethat can bring about great success or great challenges for the child'sfuture.
It is a time when reasonable andrealistic decisions should be discussed as a group that always includes theperson with ASD. In the article, "The Puzzle of Lifestyle Planning"(IRCA), Author Nancy Kalina states "Everyone makes choices daily that impactlife. . . . For individuals with autism spectrum disorders thesedecisions are often made by others and without the person's input." Thearticle goes on and proposes numerous questions that have a critical impact onthe future of any student, especially those with ASD or other developmentaldisabilities. This is a way for the individual to be involved in planningtheir life with the support of those around him/her. It is an excellentway to structure conversations about life after high school. The articlecovers further education, employment, communication, transportation,residential, travel, relationships, community perception, and supports. If we look at these topics and consider what is taught in school and requiredfor a diploma, where does the student with ASD get to discuss and learn aboutthese lifetime skills?
The transition from high school tothe rest of one's life is enormous. If there have been no plans createdand no ideas generated before graduation happens, what looms ahead in thefuture can be frightening and overwhelming. The strict concentration onacademics can certainly be a benefit in some areas such as math skills andreading, but does knowing a line from Shakespeare, learning the state capitals,or a theorem contribute to life after high school? Academics are vital but inlooking to the future, what skills in addition to academics are going tobe critical for independence, happiness, and success in adult life?
Not only do the students with ASDneed to be informed about their future and the questions they must answer, butparents must also begin to make their plans for the future. Unfortunately, parents may not always be around to protect and care for theirchild. One of the best precautions they can take is to be sure that theirchild receives the education and skills that will be necessary once high schoolis completed. How will their child handle money? Who will do thebanking? How will their child get from place to place? Who will cook ordo the laundry or mow the yard? Can the child use a telephone, text, or use theinternet? The activities of daily living are often, just as critical forstudents with ASD to learn as reading and math.
It is a delicate balance betweenacademics and functional life skills and one that can be challenging toachieve. When possible their strengths, interests, and preferences shouldalways be infused into this balance and their daily plan. If studentswith ASD are to be truly prepared for life after high school, that balance isvital. As one parent put it, "He learned Shakespeare and passed Algebra,but now what?" There must be a plan for each aspect of the future, so thestudent, your child with autism can be better prepared to live a full life.
Davis, K. (2011). Life afterhigh school...So now what?. The Reporter 16 (7).