Smooth College Transitions for Teens With Special Needs - MetroFamily Magazine
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Smooth College Transitions for Teens With Special Needs

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If you are a parent of a teen with special needs, then you’ve likely worked with school personnel each year to ensure your child received all necessary accommodations consistent with his IEP (Individualized Education Plan) or 504 plan (classroom modifications made for medical needs). However, once it is time for post-secondary school, it’s a whole new ball game.

Parents should first decide if their teen is ready to live away from home. There are many challenges that a special needs child will face when moving away from home, such as unfamiliar environments and more responsibility. If the child can handle those circumstances, then parents need to consider schools equipped to handle their teen’s unique situation.

Be Prepared

Students with special needs should be prepared gradually for this transition, so don’t wait until senior year.

Parents should ask about workshops for college-bound, special needs students. According to Suzette Dyer, president of the Oklahoma Association for Higher Education and Disability, most workshops of this nature take place as transition fairs at local high schools around the metro, including Oklahoma City and Norman Public Schools. Local school officials can provide information about availability in your area, and parents can also download the Students with Disabilities: Transition from High School to College handbook at
Matthew Cooper, assistant director of Disability Support Services at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, urges parents to teach their children self-advocacy, even starting in middle school. He suggests, “Students with special needs should attend meetings and become familiar with their IEP or 504 plan.”

“After students graduate from high school, they lose eligibility under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA),” says Kimberly King, high school counselor at Oklahoma City’s ASTEC Charter School. “Instead, they receive accommodations eligibility from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). All colleges and universities have students with disabilities coordinators that meet with students to arrange services while in college.”

Cooper cautions, “Although all universities that receive federal funding are required to provide accommodations to eligible students, each university’s documentation process is different. For example, in some instances, showing the disabilities office a copy of your son’s or daughter’s current IEP may be enough for extra time on tests, whereas another office may require updated testing and evaluations.”

Andrea Coren, MEd, who has worked in special education for 35 years and is currently the disabilities specialist at Arcadia University in Pennsylvania, cautions, “Parents with the best intentions can become enablers of their teen with special needs. Relinquishing one’s parental role as advocate is difficult.” Coren encourages parents to gradually allow their young adult to become an expert on his disability and learning style. “This self awareness will translate into self advocacy—a much needed skill in college, the work place, and all realms of life.”

To assess a teen’s readiness for college life, Coren suggests parents ponder these questions:

  • Can he keep up with assignment due dates?
  • Does he have adequate organization and time management skills?
  • Can he manage money?
  • Does he understand his strengths and weaknesses?

It’s in the Details

When looking for the right school for your child, address specific issues during the search process. Will he be comfortable in large lecture hall settings? Is regular correspondence with a campus advocate a necessity? Are there peer support groups for special needs students on campus?

Carole Patrylo, EdD, a professor of education at La Salle University in Pennsylvania and director of the university’s summer program for special needs children, explains, “Most special needs students have adjustment issues. They might want to consider attending a smaller community college before transferring to a larger college.” She recommends that students sit in on classes or shadow a student for the day during campus visits. Parents should keep a list of questions handy when they visit schools, such as:

  • What are the documentation requirements and timelines for accessing academic and residence hall accommodations?
  • What is the university’s policy for course substitutions or waivers?
  • What specialized software is available for students with learning disabilities?

Stay Connected

Even if your teen is commuting to school, he will face new challenges, such as lengthy class times, difficult course curriculum and an expectation that he is independent. Parents should keep the lines of communication open, regardless of their teen’s location.

For students who choose a college far from home, a preset schedule for staying connected is imperative, such as setting up a regular video call schedule. Be sure to collect contact information from appropriate staff members in case you have an immediate concern (e.g. a drastic change in your teen’s mood).

Although your teen needs to be independent, she also needs to know that support from family is always there if needed.

Other Considerations

If you think that perhaps college is not the right path for your child, there are other options, through the Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitative Services (DRS). DRS can help your child develop an individualized plan for their future, and provide services for direct entry into the workforce.

Myrna Beth Haskell is a feature writer, columnist and author of the upcoming book Lions and Tigers and Teens: Expert advice and support for the conscientious parent just like you. Visit for details.

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