What's Next? Preparing for Your Child Aging Out of the Educational System

Christopher White, Ed.D.
CEO, Road to Responsibility
At age 22 there is a cliff – services convert from being an entitlement to becoming voluntary non-entitlement.

For families of children with disabilities on the cusp of aging out of the educational system – typically at age 22 – and into adult life, there is much to think about. Is a job on the horizon? Is post-secondary education a consideration? What are the residential options?

At age 22 there is a cliff – services convert from being an entitlement to becoming voluntary non-entitlement, all subject to state regulations and the availability of resources. The need to begin a transition plan and address these potentially life-altering decisions, at least two years prior to this milestone, is critical.

Preparation for the transition process occurs through the child’s school, which is responsible for providing support options to meet post-high school goals to the best of the child’s abilities. School districts work in concert with other entities within state government, most notably the Department of Developmental Services (DDS). It’s important for families to become well acquainted with the adult service provider network well in advance of their child turning 22, as the smoothest transitions are predicated on a good fit between the individual’s needs and the provider’s abilities. Each service provider network has a slightly different focus in terms of the populations served. For example, a program focused on providing day services for people with autism will look different from one serving people with significant physical disabilities.

The most likely outcome for people who are eligible for services through DDS is funding for day and employment programs.

Community Based Day Support (CBDS) services are, broadly, geared toward younger people, with a goal of getting out into society, exploring employment, and engaging in a variety of enrichment activities. Day habilitation programs are designed for people who are older or medically complex and strive to help them acquire and maintain skills needed to be successful living in the community and provide access to regular therapies, such as speech, occupational, physical, and behavioral therapies.

CBDS is particularly beneficial for young adults who have completed their education. While school systems are quite proactive about exposing students to opportunities in the workplace, there are only so many hours in the day that educators can focus their attentions on introducing these employment and volunteerism prospects. As such, students moving forward to their adult lives may be unaware of the breadth of opportunities that exist within their own community.

Here is where provider organizations can get people involved in a transitional step known as group employment. This step can greatly benefit those who are unsure if they want a job, but recognize the importance of securing employment, or those who are being encouraged by parents/family members to seek employment yet are anxious about taking this major life leap. Group employment allows for more of a gentle transition. In this scenario, first-time employees work part-time at local businesses within a small group setting and are accompanied by a staff person from the provider organization.

Typical jobs include restocking shelves at grocery stores or cleaning and hanging clothes at department stores, but there is no real limit to the kinds of jobs and settings where group employment can, and does, occur. IT-related posts provide great opportunities for those with autism in particular. Scanning and organizing documents, categorizing files, and shredding are just a few of the wide range of different job prospects often available to those transitioning out of the educational system. Since group employment is part-time and alongside a group of friends they have come to know from the provider organization – and with the on-site reassurance from a provider staff member – the sense of aloneness and anxiety is diminished.

This transitional step also allows people to try working at a few sites to discover the type of job or industry they prefer, and then move on to individual career development with the goal of securing independent employment.

For families who need residential support for their adult child, the challenges can be many. The young adult must first be deemed eligible for residential support by DDS. If that priority gets the green light, chances are good that a shared living placement will be offered at first. This arrangement can be likened to foster care; the person lives with a family that is specially trained in understanding the needs of the individual.

Many families struggle with the shared living space concept – this is one of the many reasons why the more planning that is done in advance, the better off all will be. Families who prefer a group home situation should be aware that the wait can be long for placement. Group homes are centered around individuals who share a common disability, such as autism, or intellectual or learning incapacities. Group homes create an environment with a focus on routine, common goals, and cooperation with close staff supervision to ensure safety and promote independence and appropriate behavior. Applicants need to consider the entire family context when presenting a case to DDS for group home placement; the case should be as accurate and compelling as possible as to why the adult child needs a group home setting instead of shared living. Take all family matters into consideration. Do both parents work? Does one parent have a grave illness? Does the adult child have behavioral issues that can better be served in a group home?

Residential services can be quite expensive; those finding a spot in a group home nowadays typically have medical and behavioral needs in addition to intellectual disability. People with autism often fit into this category while those with slightly lesser needs are more likely to be offered a shared living arrangement.

Start early, plan comprehensively, and become acquainted with area providers and the types of services they offer. Additionally, parents need to be open to the reality that their son or daughter may want something different than what they want. This is important because even if parents are the legal guardians, DDS and adult providers will want to engage the adult child in what they are most interested in and enthusiastic about doing. Communication and advanced planning will help to ensure the best quality of life for those aging out of the educational system, and a lifestyle that brings joy and comfort to all.

Christopher White, Ed.D. is CEO of Road to Responsibility (www.roadtoresponsibility.org), which offers residential, work/employment, day habilitation and other day supports to individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities throughout southern Massachusetts.