Pilot project underway - Transition planning eyed for students with autism

AUSMThe Autism Society of Minnesota (AuSM), Autism Works and Lionsgate Academy are jointly piloting a post-secondary navigation project to help high school-aged youth with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and other learning differences create and implement a road map for life after graduation. The project is funded with a grant from the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System. The goal is to increase the number of youth with autism who successfully transition from high school into post-secondary education or employment.

Through the project, high school students from Lionsgate Academy, a Crystal charter school designed to meet the unique needs of students with ASD, will work individually and in groups with PostSecondary Navigators from Autism Works to explore their strengths and skills, learn about careers that align with those abilities, and develop a plan for the necessary post-secondary training to achieve their career goals.

While a student with autism may earn excellent grades in high school and get into a competitive university, this is only the beginning of the journey. If that same student struggles with being in a large class, or if he or she has anxiety about being away from home, or if he or she does not do well in certain climates, these factors that can significantly impact post-secondary success.

“We have been pretty successful in our efforts to prepare students with autism for life after high school,” said Diane Halpin, Lionsgate Academy executive director. “However, we recognize many of the challenges faced by our graduates, and we’re pleased to be working AuSM and Autism Works to provide our students with additional supports to ensure their transition to adulthood and independence.”

The pilot project will run through the end of the current school year.

Results will be watched statewide. Minnesota’s Department of Education has indicated that more than 17,000 youth under the age of 21 have autism in the state. Studies show that two years after completing high school, only 25 percent of individuals with ASD are employed or enrolled in post-secondary education.

ASD is the fastest growing developmental disability in the U.S. and Minnesota. According to a 2014 report by the federal Centers for Disease Control, one in 68 American youth have ASD.

While many high school students with autism are accepted into colleges and universities, they often drop out or fail academic probation. Without the supports they had from family and schools for the first 18 years of their lives, they aren’t prepared for the abrupt independence that comes with the college experience.

“The statistics are scary,” said Jonah Weinberg, AuSM’s executive director. “If we allow this trend to go unchecked, there will be hundreds of thousands of capable individuals with autism, who spend their adult lives living with their parents, and become shut out of the workforce, not for lack of ability, but because they haven’t received the instruction needed to transition into self-sufficiency.”

Ways to help make the transition are sought. “A young person with autism, heading off to college or into the workforce, may need more support and time to get adjusted, organized and connected to the right resources,” said Tyler Foutch, Autism Works executive director. “This project provides students with additional skills and tools that address how their ASD affects them, and teaches them to tap into the training when they reach campus or the workforce, to prevent them from becoming overwhelmed and giving up.”

“Parents typically send kids off to college and assume they will figure out how to balance their social and academic lives, as well as select a major that will result in a job,” Foutch said. “That’s a difficult task for any young person, but for someone with autism it can be a major challenge just to know where to start.”

Weinberg said, “Research indicates that this project could be a game-changer for the autism community when it comes to post-secondary success. If we can help youth with autism successfully make this transition, the same techniques can be used with other groups that share similar challenges. Almost everyone has the potential to develop a viable career-path; some just need a little longer runway before they can fly solo.”