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Transitioning From School to Adulthood

Thanh is working on her artwork at Creativity Explored.

Transitioning from school to adulthood is a leap for all teens, as they move into a period of adjusting to greater responsibility for their own vocational, social, physical and emotional development. At the same time, parents adjust to “letting go” of the leading role they’ve played in guiding their children through the maze of educational, medical, financial and social needs they have had since preschool. For a variety of reasons, students with a disability and their parents may approach this developmental period between adolescence and adulthood with apprehension. Depending upon the range and severity of a child’s disability, parents have historically had to play an active role in planning and implementing goals to support the welfare of their child. Up to now, they have been active in Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) and transition meetings in school. Some parents continue staying involved in making vital decisions for a son or daughter with diminished cognitive abilities. Other parents are encouraging steps to greater independence for a child who requires less and less direct support. While each person’s story is unique, planning for transition is an important investment in the future of any young adult with a disability.

People with disabilities, particularly those with severe communication impairments, face enormous barriers when making coming of age transitions (Blackstone, 2005). For example, for most young people, coming of age means moving out of a parent's home into an apartment or dormitory (perhaps with roommates), going to college and/or work, figuring out how to manage each day (when to eat, sleep, recreate, work, exercise, etc.), taking responsibility for your own finances, perhaps moving away from the town where you grew up, meeting new friends, dating without parentally imposed curfews and so on. Many individuals expect to get married, have a career, buy a car, purchase a home, have children, go on vacation and, of course, deal with future transitions (divorce, relocation, changing jobs or careers, illness, retirement, death, etc.). For young people with complex communication needs who rely on Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC), however, the realities and expectations are often very different and the barriers can seem insurmountable. For example, social services for adults with disabilities are grossly under funded. Thus, supports available in childhood and adolescence often stop at a time when more, not less, support may be needed. In addition, the general public may be unfamiliar with people who use AAC, making it even more difficult for these individuals to take on adult roles in their communities. Finally, young adults with severe disabilities often have to deal with a complex web of agencies and supports (e.g., personal assistants, transportation, living options, employment, etc.) to get through each day safely and productively. That, in itself, can be a daunting task (McNaughton, Light & Arnold; Blackstone, 2005; Blackstone, Draper & Draper, 2005).

If young people who rely on AAC are to realize a high quality of life as adults, then there is a need for some careful upfront planning. Professionals, students and family members at The Bridge School have responded to the need for “futures planning” by developing the tool Framing A Future (FAF) (King, Lunger, Toomey, 2005). This valuable instrument is designed to guide adolescents and young adults who rely on AAC and their families toward a successful “coming of age” transition.

Hannah reads a story to her friends at school.

Most families begin making plans for their children’s coming of age transition in early childhood (e.g., put money away for college, worry about grades, teach important social skills, give allowances, set up summer employment experiences, etc.). In addition, most parents intuitively understand that building strong social networks and supports outside the family are key to one’s quality of life and perhaps a critical factor in determining how their offspring will cope with adversity, crises and future transitions (Albrecht & Adelman, 1987; Pescosolido, 2001). We know, for example, that a successful coming of age transition requires that individuals with disabilities have lots of experience communicating, not only with family members, teachers and therapists (as is often stressed on IEPs and Individualized Transition Plans (ITPs), but also with a wider circle of friends, acquaintances and unfamiliar partners (Blackstone & Hunt-Berg, 2003). Teachers, therapists and family members of children with severe challenges do not always focus on systematically developing the social networks of individuals with complex communication needs or find ways to determine what each child “wants to be when he/she grows up” or what their dreams are for their own future.

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