Building a Bridge: Tips for Helping Children with Autism Transition into Adulthood

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) typically have access to a wide variety of services when they are in school.

Support services including individual therapy, speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, accommodations for learning, medication management, and more are part of their individual education plans—which they are entitled to under state law. Because these supports end when a student exits the school system and it can be hard to find providers that care for adults with ASD, that transition can sometimes feel like “falling off a cliff.” Preparation and planning can help ensure that as students become adults, they are able to maintain access to the care they need and learn to thrive in new environments. 

“Preparation for transition really begins at diagnosis,” says Sara Uram, a clinical social worker at Sheppard Pratt’s Center for Autism. “We are focusing on independence every step of the way.”

Some individuals on the spectrum may have adaptive behavior scores that fall behind their IQ scores, says Tom Flis, MS, BCBA, LBA, LCPC, the clinical director for The Center for Autism at Sheppard Pratt. That means they often rely on routines and familiar people and places, which can make transitions particularly tricky. Many risk falling through the cracks when they age out of school. A review article in 2020 showed that only 36% of young adults with autism attended college; only 58% worked for pay outside the home; 25% were completely socially isolated; and 26% received absolutely no services.

But there is hope! There are many ways to help your loved ones with autism prepare to make a successful transition into the adult world. 

Starting early

Adolescence is a time of change for everyone. Helping someone with autism navigate these changes might just take a bit more time and creativity. In early adolescence, start to think of what transitional services will be most important for your child. By breaking new skills down into simpler parts, Flis says, we can help teenagers with autism learn money management, interview and job application skills, vocational training, social skills, and independent life skills like hygiene. Start early so you have time to be patient. 

Find out what services might be offered in your community to assist you. For example, Pathfinders for Autism offers single day seminars for young adults with autism like “planning for employment,” “what to do during a traffic stop,” and more. 

Building a support system

Having a strong support system that continues into adulthood is critical to a smooth transition. Establishing friendships with peers both with and without autism is important at this age, Flis says, and it will help your child to navigate social spaces in their new environments.  “Making connections to formal supports like the Division of Rehab Service pre-employment services, as well as developing informal connections to areas of interest like the Humane Society or the local library can really make a difference,” Uram adds.

It is also important to identify outside therapists, adult providers, and specialists who can fill the holes left by school therapists and pediatricians. One place to look is Sheppard Pratt’s Hospital Outpatient Clinic in Towson, which serves children, teens, and adults with autism. Build a bridge to span the services cliff. Foster communication between providers by connecting your pediatrician or school care team to the new adult providers. 

It’s also important to help children with autism learn to advocate for themselves. Help them identify their needs, and make a plan together so they know where to turn if those needs aren’t being met. 

Preparing for a new environment 

Check out an autism-by-age checklist for ideas on other important pre-graduation to-dos like getting a state ID, applying for social security insurance, and finding providers in the area who specialize in autism and see adult clients. Get updated testing, Uram suggests. Having a recent evaluation can help you think about what your child’s needs might be in their new environment.

Visual supports can help increase independence too. “Everything from a desk calendar to written checklists reminding someone of their responsibilities can be helpful,” Uram says. “I’ve seen individuals use phone alarms to remind themselves to do a task or little stop signs to remind themselves to take a break if they feel overwhelmed.”

If possible, you can also help your child prepare for their new physical environment. Office lights or loud noises on a college campus can trigger sensory overload. Develop coping strategies like wearing earplugs, taking deep breaths, or retreating to a safe space to reset. Practice these strategies ahead of time.

Graduation should be an exciting time for you and your child. Preparing for the transitions that come along with it will help keep the challenges from outweighing the opportunities. 

Meet the Experts

  • Tom Flis, MS, BCBA, LBA, LCPC

    Clinical Director, The Center for Autism; Behavioral Services Manager
    Applied Behavior Analysis, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Intellectual Disabilities, Neurodevelopmental Disorders, Psychotherapy
  • Sara Uram, LCSW-C

    Social Worker
    Autism Spectrum Disorder, Neurodevelopmental Disorders