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Transition to Adulthood: What Happens When My Child with Special Needs Turns 18?

Adult Men with Special Needs studying.

Soon after the challenges of puberty and the creation of a new high school Individualized Education Program, an even larger milestone looms: the 18th birthday. If you’ve begun wondering what happens when your teen with special needs becomes an adult, read on to find out what to expect.

The best news is that you’ll continue to employ the same skills you have been using for years – just in a slightly different context.

Let’s jump right into the details of how you can apply your lifetime of caregiving skills in the transition to adulthood.

1 | Learn About Post-High School Education Options

Hints of what lies ahead are probably already cropping up all around you - perhaps in IEP meetings. The first step in the transition to adulthood is to simply listen for an explanation of the ongoing educational opportunities your child is entitled to pursue after they turn 18.

Individuals with disabilities can continue attending high school until age 22, but universities and other providers like vocational rehabilitation (“voc rehab”) offer a growing number of college programs geared for young adults with special needs. Some are day programs only, while others are residential - more like the traditional college experience. Either way, your child can receive additional support and programs tailored to meet his or her needs.

Your child’s high school may also offer driver’s training, but if not, specialized programs offered by private providers permit your teen to practice driving skills in a safe environment. Medicaid waiver or grant programs may fund this life-enhancing education.

2 | Explore Careers and Supports

Vocational rehabilitation (“voc rehab”) usually enters the IEP conversation by high school, if not earlier. It starts as a class your child attends to explore potential jobs and learn skills necessary for every employee.

After a few weeks of classroom instruction, the class begins visiting potential employers who appreciate the reliability and work ethic that individuals with disabilities bring to the workplace. Short rotations through various jobs help each teen identify the types of employment that do – and do NOT – work for them.

At age 18, your young adult with a disability becomes a household of one for Social Security and Medicaid purposes. Most then receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI) of up to $941 per month - and our firm can help you learn how to effectively maximize this benefit.

Individuals receiving SSI usually qualify for Medicaid as well. In addition to providing health insurance, this opens up more opportunities for job discovery and coaching, community integration, transportation, day services, and even respite and residential care. All of these support services can contribute to your family’s well-being, but successful employment through job coaching brings immense pride and a critical sense of belonging in the wider community for many adults with special needs.

And as always, listen to your child and observe. What activities bring your child exceptional joy? A teen who loves movies may thrive as a theater usher. A young artist may create and market their wares online and at craft and resource fairs. The best career for anyone may be tied to a beloved hobby, and Medicaid waiver and grant programs play a vital role.

3 | Find the Best Supported Decision-Making Process for Your Child

At least one critical decision awaits parents of teens with special needs, and that is whether to pursue supported decision-making or a conservatorship or guardianship for their child. The answer for most may be both!

In a conservatorship or guardianship, certain rights and responsibilities that come with adulthood are removed from a vulnerable individual and transferred to another person, often one or both parents. Courts do not take removal of rights lightly, nor do most parents. A medical report from a psychologist or physician documenting its necessity will be needed. However, for many individuals with intellectual disabilities, this protection is a critical step in mitigating their vulnerability.

For individuals who have the capacity to sign legal documents, a Supported Decision-making process can suffice. First, your young adult will name agents under Powers of Attorney to assist as needed in managing financial and medical affairs. Next, our firm can help you and your teen identify the specific process and types of support most helpful in guiding their decisions.

With or without a conservatorship or guardianship, Supported Decision-Making processes can and should be utilized to help individuals exercise their autonomy to the greatest extent possible - within necessary safeguards.

4 | Keep Advocating for Your Child - and All Individuals with Special Needs

Your days as an advocate for your child in IEP meetings and in your community have prepared you to address challenges that can arise while supporting an adult with special needs. Your child may be waitlisted for a critical Medicaid waiver program, or your state or local government may need encouragement to participate in federal grants that could enhance your child’s life. Whatever situation may arise, your experienced voice can make a difference in your child’s life and the lives of so many others.

We suggest making contact with at least one state or national disability coalition such as the ARC of the United States, and with one nonprofit organization that focuses on your child’s specific needs. Watch for advocacy opportunities in our newsletter as well, and if your schedule permits, try to join an annual disability lobbying effort.

Most legislators listen closely as families impacted by special needs share their experiences, and sometimes you get to share the celebration of a win. But the most meaningful result of these efforts can be the friendships that emerge among families who share common struggles.

Supporting Your Next Steps in the Transition to Adulthood

We hope this article leaves you reassured in your skill set for facing the challenges and opportunities ahead, and no matter what, our firm is here to help. We can connect you with resources to help in this exploration process - from available programs to the legal tools needed to foster your young adult’s independence.

We invite you to reach out to our firm at any time, but if you have a teen with special needs who is approaching adulthood, reach out right away... We can help you preserve family resources, balance your child’s protection and autonomy, and help them find career and lifestyle support.

Contact Sharek Law Office at 412-347-1731 or click here to schedule a complimentary 15-Minute call.


This article is a service of Sharek Law Office, LLC. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That's why we offer a Life and Legacy Planning Session, during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today to schedule a Life and Legacy Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge. Please note this is educational content only and is not intended to act as legal advice.

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