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Now that an autism diagnosis is 10 times more common than it was in the 1980s, more children than ever before are undergoing effective early interventions and treatment plans. However, one aspect of the disorder that has yet to garner attention is the scarcity of support for young adults transitioning out of high school and into adulthood.
“There is a severe lack of knowledge for educators and parents regarding available options after the public K-12 system,” says Rodger Stein, M.A., an instructor at UC Davis Extension and professor of psychology with the Los Rios Community College District who specializes in behavior supports for youth with high-functioning autism or Asperger syndrome. “We have to get to the point where our students are the ones driving their own transitions based on their own futures.”
Susan Bacalman, LCSW, a clinical social worker with the UC Davis MIND Institute, also understands the importance of preparing students for their transition to higher education or the workforce.
“In high school, many students with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) had academic accommodations implemented by an Individual Education Plan team comprised of their parents, teachers, school counselors and resource-room specialists.” But once students leave high school or other district programs for young adults (through age 21), they are on their own.
To address this concern, Bacalman has spent the past few years co-leading a UC Davis group called STUDENTS INC. This group offers those who have self-identified as having ASD or Asperger syndrome an opportunity to meet other students on the spectrum and discuss common issues in a social environment.
“The biggest challenge for students with ASD is finding the right niche on campus,” says Bacalman. “A big campus like UC Davis can be a challenging environment for any student, but it is more so for students whose social interactions do not occur naturally and automatically.” In such a setting, says Bacalman, a student with ASD is at risk of becoming isolated and withdrawn, which could impact their schooling and mental health.
Yet owing to her experiences with teens at the MIND Institute, Bacalman recognizes that successful transitions can happen every day.
“I have met so many gifted people on the spectrum who, with the right backing—a peer support group, academic accommodations, assistance with managing stress and anxiety—can make immense contributions to our knowledge base and to our society.”
Preparing for a Successful Transition
Because Stein provides services to individuals diagnosed with autism or Asperger syndrome, he began to realize that the children who had undergone early interventions would soon become “a wave of ‘graduating’ students with basically nowhere to go.”
It was out of this concern that Stein worked with UC Davis Extension and the UC Davis MIND Institute to develop the course Supporting Transition for Youth (Ages 16-25). This course examines the transition process for students with ASD who are leaving K-12 education and entering higher education or the workforce.
“We created Supporting Transition in order to initiate a radical paradigm shift among educators, professionals and parents,” explains Stein, who is the head instructor. “Ongoing evaluations and assessments after high school have to become part of the planning process in order for these teens to become self-advocates.”
For parents whose teens will be leaving home come graduation, understanding the issues involved at transition time and the resources and support services available is essential. Students who do not enroll in a post-secondary program may have trouble finding meaningful work, and students who do pursue higher education may have difficulty identifying programs that meet both their academic and social needs.
“The best preparation for parents is to expect the same life for children with autism as children without ASD,” says Stein. Instead of fearing independence, parents should research options beforehand to make sure they identify the ideal placement for their teenager.
Regional Resources for Educators, Counselors and Parents
Alta California Regional Center
California Department of Rehabilitation
Los Rios Community College District
Sacramento County Regional Occupational Programs (ROP)
Sacramento Employment and Training Agency
UC Davis Extension Autism Spectrum Disorders courses
UC Davis MIND Institute
University Centers for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities Education, Research, and Service (UCEDD)