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Autism after high school: Nine tips to help teens transition to adulthood

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After high school, teens with autism have options for work and education with some modifications.

Approximately 48,500 teens with autism turn 18 each year, and the transition between high school to post-secondary education, college, or the workforce can be a challenging, anxiety-provoking time for both them and their parents.

UT Southwestern partners with Children’s Medical Center at the Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities to help teens and families plan for and navigate this big step in their lives. Understandably, parents have a lot of questions and concerns, ranging from their child’s social skills to studying support and finances.

Although your teen has different needs compared to peers, it’s important to recognize his or her many strengths, interests, skills, and talents. Finding a way to foster these assets will be key to making your teen’s transition to adulthood smoother. Here are some recommendations to help.

Nine tips to help teens with autism become adults

1. Open the lines of communication

A challenge that parents often face is finding the right time to thoroughly explain the diagnosis of autism to their child. Although it depends on your child’s level of functioning, the conversation probably should happen during the teen years. Teens with autism should understand their diagnosis and how it affects them so they can advocate for themselves at school and at work.

In school, that might be a request to waive courses or obtain certain accommodations so they can have positive experiences. At work, teens likely will need to learn how to request modifications or support they’ve never had to ask for before. 

There’s always a possibility for a bias or discrimination if they disclose their diagnosis to a school, program, or employer. However, without this information, peers, teachers, and supervisors might misinterpret a teen’s behaviors or difficulties.

2. Request an updated autism evaluation

Before your teen graduates high school, ask for an updated autism evaluation. Recent information regarding his or her condition and abilities, either from the school or from a private psychologist, is often necessary to apply for disability insurance, waivers, and support services. 

3. Request a 504 plan

Another thing most parents don’t realize is that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and individualized education programs (IEPs) do not follow teens into post-secondary education or college. Instead, you and your child will have to seek out a 504 plan for support services and accommodations such as extra time for tests.

4. Plan for the future

When your child turns 18, you must reapply for social security disability insurance. Other financial and legal matters that can affect your child include obtaining health insurance, applying for home- and community-based waivers, and establishing guardianship and a special needs trust in the event something happens to you.

Also, check into setting up a Texas ABLE account, a tax-advantaged savings account to help people with disabilities cover costs related to housing and transportation, services, technology, and health care that’s not otherwise covered.

5. Consider your child’s strengths

Children with autism tend to be reliable, detail-oriented, and exemplary at following rules when there are clear expectations – all valuable skills for employment. Unfortunately, many work programs pigeonhole those with disabilities into a specific track or job placement rather than finding a position that is the right fit for their strengths and skills.

When deciding on a program or job, consider your child’s strengths and what he or she is interested in and passionate about so that it’s a win-win for everyone. 

6. Explore all education and work options

Research shows that young adults with autism who do not go to college or enter the workforce miss out on opportunities and support they received while getting special education services in high school. Data from a 2015 report suggest that 26 percent of young adults with autism received no services that could help them continue their education, work, or live more independently.

It can be helpful to weigh your teen’s options side by side:

• College: Whether it’s a bachelor’s or a two-year associate program, your teen can seek support through the school’s student counseling center and ask professors for accommodations as needed.

• Cooperative education programs: Cooperative (co-op) education grants students academic credit for work. It’s a good opportunity for young adults to learn more about a certain industry, get hands-on experience, and lay the frame to transition to traditional employment.

• Non-traditional post-secondary programs: Designed for people with developmental disabilities, these programs offer students a college experience and inclusion with peers. Additionally, these programs focus on helping young adults develop social, life, and work skills while encouraging independence.

• Vocational and trade school programs: Young adults with autism can have the opportunity to learn a skill or a trade, get on-the-job training, and gain work experience with the supervision and support they need.

• Volunteer or intern positions: Though often unpaid, these positions can help teens with autism identify and strengthen their skills and improve their confidence. These opportunities also can provide on-the-job training and experience to prepare young adults for traditional employment. 

7. Talk about sex and appropriate social behaviors

Research suggests that those with autism and intellectual disabilities are at increased risk for negative sexual encounters, such as coercion or assault, due to lack of education about appropriate boundaries. Likewise, young adults with autism might unwittingly make fellow students or co-workers uncomfortable because of their own social behaviors. Parents need to be proactive by educating teens about sex and safety, as well as how to modify or replace their own behaviors to support more positive experiences for themselves and their peers. Autism Speaks provides a Puberty and Adolescence resource that may be a good place to start.

8. Get support to help your teen develop soft skills

Change can be difficult for those with autism. High school is a good time to consider working with a psychologist or counselor who can help your teen develop soft skills, such as interviewing, communicating, decision-making, and managing relationships with others. Organizations that can help include the Job Accommodation Network, the Texas Workforce Commission, and ARC of North Texas.

9. Start early with soft skills, and practice often

Although some skills might be more difficult than others for teens with autism to master, many can learn self-help, life, and soft skills. They’ll likely need ample time and repetition, so start preparing your teen earlier than you might for a typically-developing child and continue to practice and reinforce those skills.

When preparing for your teen’s transition to adulthood, it’s important to recognize that your son or daughter is unique. There are many paths for teens with autism, and it’s important to prepare them for the opportunities that await after high school. 

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Additional resources for parents and teens

High school transition planning: Texas Project First offers information on diploma options and how they can affect a student’s college options and classroom modifications, as wells general education information for families of students with disabilities. Transition In Texas offers information about secondary transition and achieving postsecondary goals. REACH provides youth outreach and transition help. Think College offers additional tools and helpful information.

Scholarships: This resource lists scholarships for which your child might be eligible.

You can also speak to your medical provider or clinic social worker to find out if they know of any diagnosis-specific scholarships. Affordable Colleges Online offers economical education options.

Legal rights of people with disabilities: Disability Rights Texas is a non-profit corporation funded by Congress to protect and advocate for legal rights of people with disabilities. 

Medicaid waivers: Some people may be able to get Medicaid coverage through programs for individuals with special needs. Because of the long wait time, it is important to get your child on the wait lists as soon as possible. Find information about these programs on the Texas Health and Human Services website.

Employment: The Texas Workforce Commission Vocational Rehabilitation Services help people with disabilities get ready for, find, and keep jobs. Launchability provides services to help adults with cognitive disabilities get jobs in the community. Easter Seals Workforce Development Services provides many employment related services. Autism Treatment Center (ATC) has adult services geared toward employment and community volunteer opportunities to increase social skills and foster talents.

Independence: Texas Health and Human Services Independent Living Services helps people who have disabilities address significant barriers to their ability to live independently. Helping Restore Ability provides a variety of services involving daily living needs in the home for people of all ages. My Possibilities offers continuing education programs that provide adults with vocational training, the chance to socialize with peers, and the opportunity to learn independent living skills. For mental health and day services, call 2-1-1 or contact your Local Mental Health Authority (LMHA). 

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