Falling Off the Cliff
Special education programs in the United States became mandatory in 1975 when the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) was passed by Congress to ensure equal rights and access for disabled students in the public education system. Additional rights and protections were later added and the EHA was renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA entitles every special needs student to free public education, appropriate to his or her needs, and sends federal funding to states and local school systems to support special education services.
The federal government now requires every U.S. state to provide special education through 18 years of age, though most states extend this requirement to include students up to age 21. At 22, students age out of the public school system and the "entitlement laws" that provide services such as education, transportation, subsidized housing and vocational and life skills training cease to apply, leaving family, friends and teachers responsible for seeking out support programs. Parents and teachers refer to this as "falling off the cliff," because of the scarcity of continuing adult education programs and accommodations.
To prepare students and families for this life change, the federal law requires schools to begin the process of developing a transition plan for an individual with autism when that person reaches age 16, though the Organization for Autism Research recommends that planning for the transition begin at least as early as 14. Transition planning includes assessing, developing and documenting the skills, goals and challenges for each individual as he or she transitions out of the school system. Upon graduation, individuals with autism are assigned caseworkers from the state. Every state also has a department of vocational rehabilitation that is associated with a nationwide federal program designed to help individuals with disabilities find employment.
According to the Disability Network, experts estimate that at least 90 percent of adults with autism end up living with their parents or in institutions after they finish school. A 2012 study from Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, found that within the first six years of graduation, about one third of young adults with autism had continued on to college, and about half held paying jobs. Six percent of adults with autism work full-time, and those who come from low-income backgrounds and/or have severe disabilities face a much higher risk of not continuing education or finding employment after high school.
In 2012, the annual public and private cost of autism reached $126 billion, more than triple what it was in 2006, and a majority of those costs were in education and adult care. Studies show that individuals with autism who do not receive continued assistance into adulthood are much more likely to regress in their social and verbal skills, while early intervention can lower lifetime costs of care for an individual with autism by nearly two thirds.
According to the organization Advancing Futures for Adults with Autism (AFAA), public and private costs of autism will continue to rise rapidly if support systems for adults with autism are not made more accessible and comprehensive.
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» Hensley, Scott. "Jobs and College Pose Big Challenges for Young People with Autism." NPR. May 14, 2012.
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» "Unfinished Business: Making Employment of People with Disabilities a National Priority." United States Senate. Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. July 2012.
» Walsh-Sarnecki, Peggy. "Lack of State Services for Aging Autistic Makes Adulthood like 'Falling Off a Cliff.'" Detroit Free Press, April 25, 2012.
» "Workers with a Disability Less Likely to be Employed, More Likely to Hold Jobs with Lower Earnings, Census Bureau Reports." United States Census Bureau. March 14, 2013.