Autism: Helping Your Child Head Into to Adulthood

Medically Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD on September 04, 2013

As your child with autism becomes an adult, he will face challenges, of course. But young adults with autism also have more and more opportunities. The key is to start planning for the transition before it comes. Here's how.

Create a Plan

“The educational system is ‘home base’ for a family with autism,” says Kerry Magro, of Autism Speaks, who was diagnosed with the condition as a child. Your child probably has had a specialized plan called an IEP (individualized education program) to help her through the lower grades.

“As kids who are on the autism spectrum enter their high school years, they should have an IEP that is focused on the proper transition plan for after they leave school,” says Matthew Cruger, PhD, senior director of the Learning and Development Center at New York’s Child Mind Institute.

Like your child's earlier IEP, you'll craft this one with teachers, school administrators, and other specialists. It focuses on things like:

  • College or vocational education
  • Work
  • Adult services
  • Independent living
  • Community involvement

Autism Speaks has many aids for adults living with autism, including transition tool kits. These provide guidance and timelines for the process in your state.

Going to College With Autism

If your child is college-bound, support is available. “Community colleges all have programs for students with disabilities," Cruger says. More than 20 four-year colleges offer services to help manage the change to college. While some are free, others cost $2,000 to $8,000 a semester, in addition to tuition.

You can also hire a coach through services like College Autism Spectrum. They can help your young adult figure out college structure and learn things like the unspoken college rules of conduct that can be hard for students with autism to understand.

You and your child can learn about college life and get advice from those who've been there in Navigating College - A Handbook on Self-Advocacy Written for Autistic Students from Autistic Adults. You can download a PDF of this handbook for free online.

Work and Day Programs

In 2012, the mortgage finance company Freddie Mac set up a paid internship program for college students with autism. Additionally, other employers are starting to see autistic adults as an untapped source of brainpower.

"Supported employment" assists in finding disabled individuals paying jobs and has proved that even those with severe disabilities are able to work.

"A workplace mentor helps to find them a job that suits their interests and abilities and checks in with them periodically to make sure it works," says Bruce Litinger, executive director of the Early Childhood Learning Center of New Jersey. The non-profit provides services to children and adults with special needs.

While supported employment helps people with special needs enter the workforce, there are also vocational programs that provide counseling and on-the-job training to high school students with autism. Check with your state’s developmental disabilities service to search for programs that suit your child.

What if your child isn't heading off to work? “Even if a young adult with autism can’t have a paying job, that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t want to have some independence,” Litinger says. Taking part in activities like volunteering, gardening, art, and music can help him enjoy a more full social and emotional life.


About 16% of young adults with autism live away from home. Depending on your state, your child's housing options may include:

  • Supported living in a home or apartment with a caregiver
  • Group-home living with on-site staff
  • Foster-home living with professional teaching parents
  • Assisted living/intermediate care facilities

You can find out about housing support and services -- and who pays for them -- from your state’s developmental disabilities service.

Magro suggests that families assess their budding adults' readiness to live away from home and determine the help they will need. “Anyone with autism preparing to live on their own needs to learn the basics of independent living, including organizational skills, money management, and social skills," he says.

Putting It All Together

Some programs can help ease the transition with guidance on many aspects of adulthood, from social and kitchen skills to pastimes like book clubs and fitness activities. Then it's a matter of planning, planning, and more planning, Magro says.

“The families that I work with have learned very early on that they have to get through lots of obstacles to provide their children with what they need,” Cruger says. “That will come in handy in making the transition to adulthood.”

Show Sources


Autism NOW: "Resources."

Autism Speaks.

Matthew Cruger, PhD, senior director, Learning and Development Center, Child Mind Institute, New York, NY.

Easter Seals of America: "Living with Autism Study."  

Fortune Magazine: "New, better workers on the autism spectrum."

Bruce Litinger, executive director, Early Childhood Learning Center of New Jersey, Ho-Ho-Kus, NJ.

Kerry Magro, Autism Speaks; author, Defining Autism from the Heart.

National Association of State Directors of Developmental Disabilities Services.

Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities: "Planning Life After High School for Students on the Autism Spectrum."

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