Emily Iland, an award-winning author, advocate, and leader in the autism community, discusses key considerations for college bound students on the autism spectrum as they leave high school.
Ms. Iland’s insights are widely applicable to individuals with other special learning needs. The following article has valuable guidelines for all parents of students with IEPs and/or ITPs, whether their child has a learning disability, ADHD or other learning problem requiring special education services.
To help their child succeed, parents need to understand the transition process, the adult service systems, and supports that may be available to students to meet the demands of adult life.
When does special education end? Why is a diploma called an “exit document?”
Many parents believe that students can continue in special education until age 21 or 22, but when a student is awarded a diploma, the student is dismissed from special education services. A diploma is an “exit document” because it ENDS special education services, no matter what the age of the student receiving a diploma (even 17 or 18). Special education law (IDEA) is clear on this.
The right to receive special education services ends when the student receives a diploma UNLESS other special arrangements are made in the Individualized Transition Plan (ITP). An ITP is a form of the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that must be in place and ready to implement on the day of the student’s 16th birthday, at the latest. Without the safeguard of a well-planned ITP that includes a plan to stay in special education, the student who receives a diploma is ineligible for special educational services, whether ready or not.
Many districts now have the parent (or student if age 18) sign a document stating that they are aware that the district plans to discontinue special education services when the diploma is awarded at graduation. Many people who sign these notices don’t really understand what they mean. They are then shocked when told that all special education services are discontinued.
Graduation at 17 or 18 is a particularly problem for those with Asperger syndrome and college-bound students with autism because they are often NOT ready for life after high school. The primary focus on meeting the academic requirements for graduation often means that goals and services are not in place to prepare the student for higher education, the workplace and independent living. Because of assumptions made about their skills, many high-functioning students with ASD are not even assessed in all areas of need for their ITPs when they should be and can be, by law. Not assessing in all areas of need explains the lack of attention to these areas in the ITP and is a significant problem.
Often, it is not possible to spend time building the skills needed for success because the student’s day is completely filled with academically-focused classes. Key areas affected by ASD that require a longer timeline for development, such as socialization, communication, adaptive behaviors, and functional skills are left unaddressed. There ends up not being enough time for hands-on work experience, meaningful career preparation, practice interviewing for jobs, independent living skills (like safety, hygiene, cooking and cleaning) and learning to travel in the community. Training in the self-advocacy skills that the student needs to access services in the adult world of work and education, along with problem-solving, emotional self-regulation and organizational skills, may also be overlooked and underdeveloped.
It is already clear that the outcomes related to the lack of preparation and automatically exiting students with ASD on the “diploma track” are not good. Evidence is growing that many people on the spectrum with great potential are failing in higher education and the workplace because they are not adequately prepared. The problem is not academic or content knowledge. The risk areas are social, communication, functional, independence, self-advocacy, problem solving, etc. To complicate matters, services for adults in college are discretionary.
No one is saying that a student with ASD should not be given the diploma that they have earned, the question is when to award it! A viable option is to have the student participate in all graduation activities and ceremonies, but wait to award the actual piece of paper (diploma) until the student completes goals in all areas of need as written in the ITP. Young adults with ASD do NOT stay on a high school campus to receive services granted by the ITP. The student usually moves to another educational setting, such as a community college or specialized program site, and continues with adult-oriented services from the school district to meet the ITP Goals.
Be aware that many school districts are accustomed to continuing special education and preparation for adult life until the age of 21 for those who do not earn a diploma. Many districts, however, are NOT accustomed to extending the ITP to meet the mainly non-academic needs of those who CAN receive a diploma. There are very specific protections in special education law (IDEA) about the student’s rights to an adequate transition plan that prepares them for post-secondary education and the workforce. Whether it is local custom or not, the student with ASD, even if on the “diploma track,” has the right to be assessed in all areas of need, including functional and adaptive skills. They have the right to receive the services needed to meet their ITP goals. The key is designing an individualized transition plan to meet the needs of the individual student that truly prepares the person for adult life.
What if the school district says, “NO,” that someone who can earn a diploma must take it and leave? The parent or adult student has the right to disagree. Graduation is considered a “change in placement.” If the parent or student does not agree with the change in placement, the procedural safeguards and protections in Special Education law (IDEA) come into play to help resolve the situation. You will want to consult an expert for legal advice, but one important thing to know is that if there is disagreement about being exited (the change of placement) a protection called “stay put” goes into effect. Stay put means that student remains in special education until the situation is resolved. The resolution itself may also support continuing special education services through the ITP.
Who makes decisions about the IEP when a student is 18 years or older?
There have been many hints in this article that an adult student of age 18 or older is the person who signs the IEP or ITP. The signature of the adult student indicates agreement with the assessments, goals, services and any other aspect of the educational or transition plan. If age 18, the adult student is the one asked to sign the notice and agree to be dismissed from special education when the diploma is awarded.
While the parents can still attend the IEP or ITP, parents do not have the right to share in the adult student’s educational decision making unless the adult gives the parent that right in a written and signed statement. Parent preferences cannot override the decisions of the adult student, no matter how ill-advised, unless the adult student has granted shared rights.
Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome are developmental disabilities. This means that the person’s calendar age and their level of functioning in particular areas do not necessarily match. Skills needed in educational planning such as understanding cause and effect, imagining consequences, and problem-solving, may be less developed in those with ASD than in peers of their age. Yet the responsibility falls upon them, ready or not.
This realization can serve as a call to action for parents. If the student needs continued support to understand and consent to the IEP or ITP in an informed way, is he or she ready for life? If the answer is no, don’t wait any longer. Make arrangements so that you will be allowed to continue to be involved in your child’s plans and decision making. Make the transition plan strong and meaningful to improve your child’s chances of realizing his or her potential and becoming a successful adult.
Emily Iland is an award-winning author, advocate, researcher, and leader in the autism field. She is the co-author of Autism Spectrum Disorders from A to Z (2004) and translator/publisher of the Spanish version, Los Trastornos del Espectro de Autismo de la A a la Z. Her new book on Reading Comprehension in good decoders with ASD, tentatively titled Drawing a Blank, will be published in Fall, 2010.
Emily is active on the Senate Select Committee on Autism as the co-chairman of the Transition work group of the North LA Task Force.
How you can reach Ms. Iland:
Phone: (661) 297-4205
Visit her website