Life after high school -- transitioning to adulthood
Families of children with disabilities need to think ahead about life after high school, said Teresa Grossi, director of the Center on Community Living and Careers at Indiana University's Indiana Institute on Disability and Community.
"Losing the structure of the school system can be extremely difficult for families of children with disabilities, so it is crucial to consider what the next step will be and what kind of supports your individual child will need," she said.
Below are her suggestions on planning for each child's transition to adulthood.
- A vision of the future. "Start thinking early about where your child will be in the years after high school," Grossi said. "Will he or she be going on to a two-year or four-year institution, or transitioning directly into a the workplace? Will significant, ongoing supports be necessary or will occasional guidance from a counselor be enough? Once you have the vision, you can start 'backward planning' -- thinking about what it takes to prepare for each milestone until you can identify a first step you can take today."
- Never too early to start planning. Waiting lists for adult support programs are incredibly long. Grossi advises applying for these state supports when a child enters preschool or early elementary school to improve the odds that funding and supports will be accessible when the student finishes high school.
- Dream big. "Encourage your child's interests and dreams. Instead of saying that a goal is unrealistic, give your child the tools to research what it takes to achieve that goal and evaluate whether it is within reach." Grossi used the example of a child who dreams of being a veterinarian. "Help your child look up the curriculum for a veterinary degree and what sort of prerequisites he or she would need to take in high school. It may turn out that these subjects are not strong points for your child, but that opens the door to look into other job opportunities that involve working with animals, and starting to identify the type of supports and accommodations that may be needed." Grossi also advised ensuring that students explore a variety of options before choosing one career path.
- Self-determination skills. Parents can encourage independence and self-sufficiency by helping children build "self-determination" skills, Grossi said. This attribute incorporates abilities in problem-solving, decision-making, goal setting and self-advocacy. "Building self-determination starts at a very young age by giving your child responsibilities, such as household chores and decision-making roles. It also involves making sure your child understands his or her disability and knows how to ask for supports. In many cases, by high school age it is appropriate for the child to take over the role of talking to the teacher about classroom accommodations."
- Consider the culture. "When we think about what we expect from young adults with disabilities, it's important to consider how young adults without disabilities are doing in terms of achieving independence and finding meaningful employment," Grossi said. "In our culture, in general, it's taking students longer to finish college, longer to achieve financial independence and longer to move out of their parents' homes. We should be careful not to place unreasonably high expectations on children with disabilities when the larger cultural trend is toward an extended adolescence."