Using Your Autistic Child's IEP to Transition to Adulthood

Transition Planning for Autistic Teens

Most parents of children on the autism spectrum are well aware that school services, provided through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) end abruptly on their child's 22nd birthday. From one day to the next, all of the laws, entitlements, programs, and services provided through the school district simply end.

This end of services is often described as a cliff. But in fact, the process of planning for that milestone birthday should begin long before your child's school services are complete. The transition process can begin as early as age 14 and must begin when she is 16.

The process should involve your child's school district and therapists. The most important tool for setting up adult services for your child is probably his Individualized Education Plan or IEP.

Independent teen smiling
Klaus Vedfelt / Getty Images

The Transition Plan and Your Child's IEP

While young adults with autism have challenges that will impact their daily lives as adults, the good news is that schools are required to help your child address those challenges. According to, one of the top sources of information about special education law:

"Transition services are a coordinated set of activities that promote movement from school to such post-school activities as post-secondary education, vocational training, employment, adult services, independent living and community participation. They must be based on the individual student's needs, taking into account his or her preferences and interests. Transition services must include instruction, community experiences, and development of employment and other ​post-school adult living objectives. If appropriate, daily living skills and functional vocational evaluation may also be included."

This means that if the transition process is followed to the letter (which rarely happens), your child can set her own goals for every aspect of adult life and expect the school district to help her prepare for and achieve those goals. Even if the process is imperfect, your child will have more support in preparing for adult life than most of his typically-developing peers.

Before Developing a Transition Plan

A transition plan should be based not only on your child's personal goals and anticipated challenges but also on her existing skills, strengths, and needs. While you may already have a good idea of your child's particular areas of strength and weakness, it's important that she undergo official evaluations by specialists prior to writing the plan.

Not only will this help pinpoint needs more specifically so that they can be appropriately addressed, but formal evaluations will also give you a meaningful reference point when start requesting services or programs.

To start the assessment process, connect with your child's guidance counselor at school and begin the conversation. Explain that you want to start the transition planning process and need the school to evaluate vocational interests, personal goals, and relevant strengths and weaknesses.

Most districts should be able to conduct or request such evaluations, which may include:

  • Vocational testing (aptitudes and interests)
  • Educational testing (functional use of spoken and written language and math)
  • Community-Based Skills Assessment (assessment of your child's ability to function independently in the community by, for example, accessing transportation, finding appropriate help when needed, shopping, etc.)
  • Adaptive Living Skills Assessment (assessment of your child's ability to manage daily living skills such as grooming, dressing, cooking, cleaning, telling time, etc.)

Depending on your child, you may also want to conduct neuropsychological, psychological, and/or functional skills evaluations to determine whether your child might benefit from targeted social skills training, training in the use of everyday appliances, and so forth.

Your district should pay for all of these assessments, though they may want to use their own psychologists, therapists, and guidance counselors to do the work. If you want a private evaluator you can argue that the district should pay their fees, but it may be difficult to make this happen.

It's important to note that if you start the transition process at age 14, 15, or 16 you will need to repeat the evaluations as your child grows into young adulthood. Your child's skills, challenges, and interests will change over time. In addition, some of the skills listed in the assessments would be inappropriate for any person under 16.

Elements of a Transition Plan in Your Child's IEP

In addition to any other goals you typically include in your child's IEP, you will also now be crafting a vision and focused goals that relate to these four areas:

  1. Vocational training
  2. Postsecondary education
  3. Employment
  4. Independent living

You and your child will craft vision statements that include a description of where and how your child will live as well as personal and employment goals. These might include living in a group setting, participating in sports, or working as a carpenter for a local business.

The goals may not be absolutely realistic (some people with autism are unlikely to ever live completely independently, for example), but your child's vision should nevertheless be reflected accurately.

Based on assessments and the vision statement, you and your child's IEP team will craft specific IEP goals. As with any other IEP goal, transition goals will be specific, benchmarkable, and measurable.

For example, "prepare for a career as a carpenter" is not an appropriate goal in itself, but "identify and properly use hammer, saw, and screwdriver in 5 out of 6 trials with minimal support" might be a good way to craft a goal that helps a child work toward her long-term vision of becoming an employable carpenter. Goals may be achieved through instruction, hands-on experience, internships, social activities, or other means (neither your child nor your district is limited to in-school experiences or resources).

Transition Meetings

If you start the transition process at the appropriate time in your child's education, you will have many transition meetings. If possible, your child will attend the meetings and share her perspectives and ideas. After he or she reaches the age of 18, if you are not his guardian, he will have the legal right to either take charge, share responsibility for developing the plan, or hand responsibility over to you.

As your child gets older, meetings and goals will focus with greater precision on the skills your child needs to fulfill her vision. For example, if she wants to attend college her goals may focus more on executive functioning skills, self-advocacy, and social skills.

Other possibilities, depending on your child's particular functional level, could include:

  • Adapted driver's education programs
  • Support for earning certifications in areas such as ServeSafe, CPR, childcare, animal care, etc.
  • Hands-on training in key areas of daily living such as transportation, banking, money-handling, interaction with health professionals, handling unexpected or emergency situations, cooking, dishwashing, etc.
  • Community involvement with recreational activities or hobbies

Transition Resources

Transition planning isn't a new idea, but surprisingly few school districts have a good idea of what it takes to initiate and manage the process for students on the autism spectrum. As a result, it is up to parents to conduct research, attend conferences, join groups, and learn as much as possible about the transition process. It's also important for parents to know their child's rights: if a district can't provide appropriate transition services they must pay for a student to receive those services in another setting.

Many organizations provide information about transition planning in general, and some put together local or regional transition conferences and events. The ARC and Easter Seals are just two examples of such organizations, and their events are worth attending. For more specific information about autism and transition planning, you may want to look at the Autism Speaks Transition Tool Kit which includes specific autism-related information and sources.

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By Lisa Jo Rudy
Lisa Jo Rudy, MDiv, is a writer, advocate, author, and consultant specializing in the field of autism.