Post High School Transition Planning for Autistic or Socio-emotionally Challenged Students
By Carmen Roberts, Ed.D.,
Director of Transitional Services and Programs
Many high school juniors and seniors will experience some bumps in the road as they transition their way into adulthood and independent living. This critical period, however, has added complexity for autistic or socio-emotionally challenged students who are attending specialty, therapeutic living schools or programs.
Students managing these conditions require extra planning and goal-setting guidance when it comes to going on to college, vocational training or employment — not to mention gaining the abilities and mechanisms to live independently.
Tangible action steps must be taken to direct and prepare teens to manage this transition. Without this guidance, students with emotional health and learning disabilities could flounder.
At the O-School, a formal Transition Roadmap is in place covering the necessary transition skills for teenagers. This Roadmap encompasses the transition curriculum topics presented by teachers, and the tasks and activities associated with each topic.
Common to every Individualized Education Program (IEP), all special needs students have transitional planning meetings with teachers, parents and other school staff. Students also take inventories to identify skills, abilities, and aptitudes as they relate to future education and employment, giving them a chance to express their dreams, goals and the activities they enjoy.
While working with the information expressed in individual IEPs, the O-School adds particular emphasis in three primary areas for students managing autism or socio-emotional challenges:
1. Self-Advocacy and Self Determination
The ancient maxim, “Know Thyself,” applies to how the O-School encourages and reinforces realistic self-awareness in its high school students about how to advocate for themselves to get the help and supports they need to live their best adult life.
But it isn’t enough to be simply aware. Fully understanding and internalizing self-advocacy and self-determination is essential for students to take control. To that end, the O-School works with high school students to help them build key competencies, such as learning how to ask for help, effectively communicating their needs to others, and strengthening their executive functioning skills.
Along with taking assessments and answering questionnaires that measure self-advocacy and self-determination, teachers and staff ask ninth grade students to formulate and articulate goals for their life ahead.
Where the O-School is distinctive is how it formalizes the process with the IEP. Each student actively walks through the entire document with teachers, clinicians and parents to promote ownership. Their active involvement promotes a fuller comprehension of their challenges, and builds mechanisms to help them accommodate and overcome those challenges as they navigate college, professional and social settings.
During IEP meetings, note taking and communication is encouraged to teach students how to ask for help. At the secondary education level, this is especially important for students who are on the autism spectrum.
With the O-School’s intimate class size, the teacher and teacher assistant in each classroom continually engage students to ensure understanding and communication about these concepts. Students also learn about their respective disabilities and how they affect their lives both in school and the community.
Ultimately, students need to display and execute self-advocacy skills competently before they leave the O-School for home, college or employment.
2. Post-Secondary Pathway Planning and Career Development
Like any other school, the O-School places heavy emphasis on students discovering their respective post-secondary pathways through learning about the vast array of options available, such as 2- or 4-year colleges, gap years, trade or technical school, military and employment options.
Where the O-School differs is the high academic aptitude of its students. These are intelligent young adults whose difficulties stem from autism or other emotional and social issues. Frequently, they are self-conscious and question their ability to succeed in college or in a job. A great deal of time is spent delivering positive reinforcement.
That reinforcement takes the form of helping each student create a plan that suits him or her. It might mean employment immediately after high school, taking a gap year, or beginning their college experience at a community college versus a university. Regardless, the outcome is the student gaining clarity and choosing the path they feel good about.
Together with the O-School’s small student to teacher ratio, as well as the family’s involvement in therapy for the length of each student’s stay, teachers and parents work in tandem to set students up for success in the long term. This interaction and cooperation reinforces the self-advocacy portion of the program.
3. Employment & Independent Living Skills
A holistic approach to education and treatment are primary missions at the O-School, but how does the staff teach students about everything needed to help them build and maintain an independent lifestyle? School has one set of responsibilities. Living life has others.
Handling financial transactions such as banking and managing money, learning to drive or navigating public transportation, practicing networking and interviewing skills with friends and relatives and visiting college and training schools are some of the skills that help propel students toward a successful, independent life.
The O-School encourages students to have normalizing experiences by navigating within their communities and the larger world. Part of the Transition Roadmap includes workshops, external events and activities for students to participate in during the regular school year. These experiences expose them to what it’s like to make their own way in the world, teaching them coping mechanisms, and reinforcing accountability and autonomy.
Where the O-School differs from other schools is that its transition program involves everyone — from teachers and case managers, to dorm counselors and family members. Everyone involved meets regularly to ensure that transition plans are in place.
While the education and residential staff instruct and guide students about concrete steps to help them transition, there are also formalized services for parents to understand how to assist their child as they navigate from school to independent living.
Regardless of the challenge they face, students can choose many pathways in life. By balancing planning, positive reinforcement and active, consistent guidance with personal ownership, the transition process becomes manageable, easier and most importantly, effective for the long-term.
Carmen Roberts, Ed.D. is Director of Transitional Services and Programs at the O-School. Contact Carmen at firstname.lastname@example.org.