During the first 21 years of their lives, individuals with autism are offered critical support services through their local public schools.
By law, those services must include “transition” planning that begins when the students turn 14½, providing nearly seven years of preparation for the next stage of their lives.
Yet when that assistance ends, many of those young adults and their parents are left with the same question.
“It’s a very important topic right now because there have been some changes in the legislation,” says Sarah Johnston-Rodriguez, associate professor of Special and Early Education. “One change goes back to 2004, the IDEA law on special education, which changed the language to really focus on transition and on meaningful outcomes in the three areas schools are accountable for: community living, careers and employment, and postsecondary education.”
Modifications to the Higher Education Act, meanwhile, require that access to postsecondary education is available to students with intellectual disabilities.
And, in 2017, Illinois become an “employment-first” state to promote “community-based, integrated employment as the first option for employment-related services for individuals with disabilities, physical, intellectual or behavioral.”
The NIU College of Education’s upcoming Community Learning Series – “Transitioning to the Adult World: Connecting the Dots for Young Adults with Autism” – will help parents, students, teachers, employers and future educators make sense of it all.
Free and open to the public, the event will feature six forward-thinking panelists who will share their innovative and exemplary approaches, supports and successes that have empowered their students to achieve productive lives. They are:
- Khushbu Davi, program coordinator, Parents Alliance Employment Project
- Kori Jung, teacher/case manager, District 214 Transition Program, Arlington Heights
- Christine Putlak, assistant director, A.E.R.O. Special Education Cooperative
- Benji Rubin, attorney, Special Needs Legal and Future Planning, Rubin Law Offices
- Toni Van Laarhoven, professor, NIU Department of Special and Early Education
- Traci Van Laarhoven, vocational coordinator, Waubonsie Valley High School
“There are so many resources that teachers and parents need to plan ahead,” Toni Van Laarhoven says, “so we’re looking at what’s out there: What are some of the benefits available? What are some of the legal things people need to think about, such as guardianship? How do we prepare individuals if they choose to go the college route? These are things people really have to start thinking about.”
“We’re really focusing on services that are innovative and community-based,” adds Johnston-Rodriguez, who considers transition a matter of civil rights and social justice.
“Some states have done away with all of their ‘sheltered workshops,’ and the emphasis now for schools is to prepare these students for some kind of education, career or employment in the community.”
Van Laarhoven, a Presidential Teaching Professor at NIU, and her identical twin sister Trac, will talk about their Project MY VOICE – a person-centered planning tool that equips high school students with autism, and/or intellectual disabilities, to participate and have a voice in their own Individualized Education Programs via multimedia.
Johnston-Rodriguez, meanwhile, is also piloting a program that challenges students with disabilities to create their own PowerPoint presentations based on career exploration and creating a plan for where they want to go with their lives and how they plan to get there.
Lisle-based Parents Alliance Employment Project is partnering with Cadence Health in Project SEARCH, to offer internships at Central DuPage Hospital to young adults with developmental disabilities.
Many corporations “have gotten on board with employing people with special needs in meaningful kinds of jobs,” Johnston-Rodriguez says. “There’s also been a lot happening at the federal level with research and programs on customized employment. We’re seeing all of this come to fruition.”
Both professors say the evening will enlighten everyone, from those adolescents, parents, families, teachers, service providers and employers already engaged in the transition to future teachers of individuals with special needs.
“Preparing for adulthood is extremely important, and has its challenges for people with autism as it does for any young adult, but it really does take a lot of planning, support and resources,” Johnston-Rodriguez says.
“As for any adolescent, these years are very formative. But for students with disabilities, they are even more so, because this is their last chance to get really intensive academic preparation and independent living skills and really focus on career and employment skills,” she adds. “In school, everyone gets a free education, but when you get into the adult world after 21, that all changes.”
Van Laarhoven especially wants teachers and future teachers to attend the Community Learning Series.
“Even though teachers of special education are aware of transition and what goes into it, that’s an area where they need much more support. There’s so much to think about, and there are so many moving parts,” she says. “I would like them to be able to think outside the box.”
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