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Life After High School

Discover Options in Education, Careers & Service for Young Adults with Special Needs



Before graduates have tossed their mortarboards and flipped their tassels, they need to decide what comes after high school. Students with special needs and their families need to prepare for this transition and determine the best path for these young adults after they age out of the educational system: a job, volunteer work, college or military service.

Explore career and volunteer options for young adults with special needs

To choose the best path, David Rose, special education coordinator at Positive Outcomes Charter School in Camden, DE, says it’s most important for students to follow their passion, then search for practical applications. Through internship programs, teens with special needs can get a feel for different jobs during high school to help figure out what their true passions are.

“We encourage our kids to dream high but then get to a point where we need to be realistic,” notes Rose. That means the student who is passionate about but not adept at basketball could work at a recreation center or in a sporting goods store or provide volunteer support for a local team.

Many programs help students and their families not only choose the best path but also enhance important life skills. For example, the Delaware Department of Labor’s vocational rehabilitation counselor meets with every senior at Positive Outcomes Charter School. The Departments of Labor in Pennsylvania and New Jersey offer similar services.

Students receive counseling and guidance, assessment and vocational testing to see what type of work they’d be best suited for. The counselor helps them find or maintain a part- or full-time job and provides assistance with resume writing and interview skills. The students also get independent living skills information, medical assistance and tools or devices to assist with employment needs.

Continuing education options for students on the autism spectrum

Since her high school graduation in 2005, Katherine Highet, 29, who is on the autism spectrum, has audited classes at Rider University in Lawrenceville, NJ. She currently takes a music theory course. An accomplished pianist and harpist, the New Jersey resident also takes voice, piano and harp classes.

“College provides a structured environment for her to continue to learn,” says her mother, Danuta Highet. “The vast number of musical performances and recitals gives her an opportunity to observe others and learn from them.”

Some universities offer programs specifically for students with autism spectrum disorders. Drexel University in Philadelphia offers the Drexel Autism Support Program, although participants don’t need to be on the autism spectrum to enroll. The university pairs students with trained peer mentors who work one-on-one on personal, social, academic and professional goals that the students set for themselves.

Skating parties, ball games and other social activities “allow students to engage in modeling behavior and integration at their own pace and comfort zone,” says Gerard D. Hoefling, the program’s director.

DASP also helps students become more adept at the interview process, and the program is discussing ways to provide support for their students during co-op job experiences.

Work and volunteerism for young adults with special needs

Laura Williams, 31, bags groceries at Acme and volunteers at Virtua Hospital. Her twin sister, Rachel, works at Carmike Cinemas andvolunteers in the hospital’s cafeteria. On their days off, the sisters love to hit the gym. Both women have Down syndrome.

“They treat their jobs very seriously,” says their mother, Maria Williams. “They are dedicated to their work and enjoy interacting with  their fellow employees and the public.”


Their jobs are all within the girls’ Voorhees, NJ, community, which is important to the Williams family. “As part of their education at Eastern Regional High School, they job sampled with the assistance of job coaches,” says their mother. “That gave them exposure to jobs in the community and also gave employers exposure to Laura and Rachel and their capabilities.”

Acme is one of many companies that hires employees with special needs. They tailor specific jobs to the worker’s skill set, which may include bagging groceries, collecting carts and performing general cleaning tasks.

“We’re a local company, and our team lives within the communities we serve,” says Danielle D’Elia, Acme’s communications manager for the greater Philadelphia area. “Our special needs associates are hard workers that learn our business and develop greater self-confidence in the process.”

Military service options for applicants with learning differences

“We have quite a few former students in the military, and several qualified as students with disabilities,” says Rose.

Military service became possible through the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, which unlocked more opportunities for high school grads with ADHD and other learning differences. They may serve in the Civil Service, either on military bases or with companies who contract with the U.S. government, or they can serve as enlisted or commissioned personnel if their disability does not prevent them from being ready for active duty.”

With planning and support, teens with special needs can transition to young adults with meaningful options for their futures. The key is to identify their interests and skills and prepare before high school graduation day.


Terri Akman is a contributing writer to MetroKids

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