Building a Transition Plan
Transition planning, in its most basic sense, means figuring out what you want to do in the next stage of your life, gaining the skills and resources you need to do it, and then doing it. In theory, everyone—autistic or not—should engage in a transition planning process, not only during high school but also during the years preceding every life change.
Of course, in the world of special needs education and law, nothing is as simple or self-evident as it appears. Transition planning is no exception to that rule. What should, ideally, be a straightforward and collegial process of planning for postsecondary life has become a contentious legal requirement, bound by laws that differ from state to state and supported by resources that may be radically different from school district to school district. What’s more, the philosophy surrounding transition varies as widely as does philosophy surrounding autism treatment, appropriate educational settings, and parenting styles.
In short (and not surprisingly), while it is theoretically possible to build an ideal transition plan and process, outcomes may not match the picture on the front of the brochure.
Who’s Driving the Transition Bus?
In some districts, a teen’s desires—no matter how apparently unrealistic—are taken seriously. One autism educator recently recounted a story, for example, of a teen who, though sight-impaired, wanted to be a pilot. Rather than hearing “that’s not an option,” he was offered a variety of related services including an opportunity to go up in an airplane with a professional pilot. It was the teen himself who, after interviewing the pilot and learning about the training process, determined that the career was not right for him—though he could develop the skills to work with or around airplanes.
This story is not typical, although it is not unique. Another similar example involves a girl with developmental disabilities whose dream was to be a country western singer. After trying out voice lessons and getting training in music theory, she found that she was in over her head—and made a different decision about her ideal future.
From one point of view, these stories are terrific examples of how highly-motivated teens can be empowered to make smart decisions for themselves. From another point of view, it’s a painful reminder of how much time and money can be wasted when one is following a teenager’s unrealistic vision of what “could” be versus what is really possible. These different perspectives highlight how differently various players view the transition process. Is it an opportunity for exploration, brainstorming, and experimentation? Or is it a process whereby a solid set of skills and resources are lined up for a young adult who desperately needs them? Or—as some suggest—can it be both?
What Is Transition Planning?
For purposes of this article, Transition planning can be defined as a process required by law which involves post high school goal-setting and implementation for students aged 14-22 who have IEPs. Here’s how transition planning is defined on the Wrightslaw  Special Education website:
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.
In theory, a Transition Plan can include almost any kind of education, training or experience—from hygiene to banking to job training, driver’s education, sex education, college admissions and more. Even better, transition planning should be based not on what is realistic, practical or affordable, but on what a student finds interesting and desirable. Naturally, students’ ideals are often influenced by their parents’ preferences, and thus a student’s aspirations may well match a parent’s hopes and dreams.
According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act  (IDEA), all states are required to begin Transition planning by age 16, and some states require that districts begin the planning process at age 14. Given that a student with an IEP may remain in the pubic school system until he graduates with a regular diploma or until the end of the school year in which he turns 21 (longer in a few states), it is possible for the Transition process to last for up to six years. Ideally, this would provide a wonderful opportunity to build academic, vocational, social and practical skills while also setting up a seamless transition from school to the workplace or postsecondary education, with additional resources and supports in place for housing, socialization, recreation and transportation.
How often does this idyllic scenario play out? Of course, the answer is: Rarely.
Starting the Transition Process
You should receive a Transition planning form from your school district when your child has reached (or is about to reach) the appropriate age based on your state’s laws. That age may be 14, 15 or 16. Transition planning forms differ from state to state but are generally fairly straightforward. They typically ask you to create:
- A “vision” for your child’s future;
- A set of skills and abilities your child will need to achieve that vision;
- A set of activities, classes, experiences and/or supports required to help your child build the skills and abilities he needs to achieve the vision.
In order to put together the Transition Plan, at least in theory, your child needs to have a vision for what he wants when he leaves high school. If your child is like most 14-year-olds, her “vision” may vary from a shrug and “I don’t know” to “I want to be a Grammy-Award-winning singer-songwriter.” What’s more, your child’s vision may change from year to year, so that this year’s would-be performer becomes next-year’s would-be horse farmer!
Add to the problems of adolescence in general the problems associated with autism, and you may have a very difficult time isolating a child’s desires, interests and goals. He may be unable to articulate specific directions, or she may simply be unable to imagine a life different from the one she’s always led. Alternatively, a teen on the spectrum may be extraordinarily unrealistic, because he doesn’t have the flexibility to go beyond one set idea.
In order to determine appropriate directions, many districts will implement a battery of transition assessments. These are tests are intended to help you, your district and your child to better understand your child’s strengths, needs, and interests. The idea is that, as a result of the assessments, it will be much easier to put together a vision for the future.
The National Secondary Transition Technical Assistance Center  is a national technical assistance and dissemination center funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs . Its very large website is loaded with (among other things) tools for assessing a teen’s interests, abilities and needs. In general, the site recommends a combination of formal and informal testing tools, ranging from typical personality and vocation assessments to assessments of functional abilities, community-based assessments, work-based assessments, and so forth.
Ideally, the assessment process should provide the means to identify goals, needs and tools for reinforcing strengths and remediating weaknesses so as to reach the stated goals. Unfortunately, while there is research surrounding assessment practices, and recommendations for an ideal assessment process, the law does not absolutely require any particular battery of tests. The NSTTAC “assessment toolkit ” offers plenty of testing options, but it does not provide a clear road to insisting that your district implement any particular set of instruments for any individual student.
Because the mandates regarding assessments can be very loose, it may be up to the parent to force the district to go beyond their own informal observations—or to ask anything other than “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Fortunately, the process can lead to some helpful outcomes, even when it’s less than ideal. In an interview with AA16, Nellie Aspel, Director of Exceptional Children for the Cleveland County Schools in North Carolina noted, "If enough people know the student, especially if they can’t communicate, you take that information and put it together with experiences, interviews, and know for example that the child enjoys working outside, working with people, etc. Your goal can be very general—working outdoors, working with people, etc., and then base a vision on what you can do as opposed to what you can’t do. Then build transition activities around those goals."
Beyond assessments provided and/or implemented by the school district or professionals in specific areas of development, many experts highly recommend “person-centered assessments.” According to Nellie Aspel, Director of Exceptional Children for the Cleveland County Schools in North Carolina, "Person-centered planning process empowers the central person to be at the center of the process. There are various person-centered assessment and planning processes—whole-life planning , PATH, etc. The common element is that the student is empowered to lead it. It’s about training in leadership, and taking charge of one’s own direction in life."
Tools such as the PATH Person-Centered Planning Tool  have the great advantage that they are designed to encourage buy-in. If a teen is working toward a goal she herself has selected, using tools she herself has designed, she is far more likely to feel positive, energized and engaged. On the other hand, of course, person-centered planning requires an enormous investment in time, energy, and ongoing commitment from a group of people (including your child’s school district staff) for whom the process may or may not be particularly significant.
As a parent, you can tap into person-centered planning tools such as those described above with or without the district’s involvement. While this can be a rich and exciting process, however, it may not have the desired outcomes if the district and/or supporting agencies are not engaged.
From Transition Plan to IEP
While the Transition Plan itself may be legally mandated, the items included in the plan are not. To turn visions into legally mandated objectives, your team must transfer appropriate measurable benchmarks, goals and objectives from the “visioning” document into the IEP. If you, your child and your district have developed a solid Transition Plan, it should be relatively easy to use that plan to enhance the IEP. If, on the other hand, you are in disagreement—or have a not-so-solid transition plan—it can be much tougher.
What makes a Transition Plan solid? As mentioned earlier, the plan should include a vision, objectives, and steps required to meet the objectives and fulfill the vision. If you’ve described clear, actionable steps, then those steps can become IEP goals in themselves. The trick, of course, is to determine which steps to include at which point in your child’s development.
The process of developing from 14-year-old child to self-determining, independent working adult is very involved for anyone. A teen with autism will need help in almost every aspect of development and learning, from social interaction to communication to executive function. If your child wants to work in the community, she will need to learn to drive or develop the skills to access transportation systems. If your child wants to live outside of your home (or even be at home without you monitoring his every action), he will need to know how to cook, clean, wash clothes, and generally care for him or herself. If your child envisions a college career, he will need to know how to navigate a campus, prioritize work, share space with a roommate, and much more.
How much of this can you fit on a single IEP? Obviously, you’ll need to pick and choose the specific objectives you want to address, based upon your child’s age, level of ability and need. In addition, you will want to select items that are best managed by the school district rather than by you, the parent, or by Vocational Rehabilitation or other agencies. In general, however, it makes sense to select at least one objective in each of three critical areas: academics, vocational skills and life skills. All of this must be done bearing in mind that your child’s interests, abilities and needs are likely to change between the time he is 14 or 16 and the time he graduates from (or leaves) high school.
Who Manages the Transition Process?
Ideally, your school district has a dedicated transition management expert, who is trained in and knowledgeable about all aspects of the transition process. That individual understands the assessment process, has a solid grasp of the academic offerings in the district, knows just what’s available through various agencies such as Vocational Rehabilitation or Health and Human Services, is aware of vocational training and placement opportunities in the community, and has a good grasp on where to find funding, job or education coaches, peer mentors, special transportation or education programs, which colleges offer the kinds of programs and supports your child might need, and much more.
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that your district does not have a transition management expert who can manage and guide the process as you would prefer. In that case, transition management is likely to become the job of the IEP team, the special education director, and, of course, you as the parent or guardian. It is also possible to tap into a growing number of public and private services available for families like yours.
Your district, for example, may already know that they should be including local Vocational Rehabilitation staff in your child’s IEP meetings. If not, can contact your local Vocational Rehab yourself. (Visit your state’s Roadmap on our homepage  for this link.) Other resources include:
- Developmental Disabilities Centers in your state (also listed in your state’s Roadmap );
- National Secondary Transition Technical Assistance Center  offers a wide range of documents and legal information regarding transition planning and implementation;
- The Council for Exceptional Children  offers a number of articles and resources for transition planning;
- ThinkCollege.net  is a website dedicated to information about college and post-secondary education for special needs students.