Sensei Lisa Kozak, who teaches therapeutic martial arts at Summit Academy School – Lorain (left), says open communication lines between students with autism and their adult mentors will help make way for success after high school.

Graduating from high school can be an inspiring yet daunting rite of passage for most teens, particularly those with autism. Determining which post-graduation option is the best fit should be a step-by-step process for young adults with autism, say Summit Academy Schools educators, dedicated to teaching students who learn differently. They share their top seven tips for successful transitions to young adulthood.

1. Investigate all the possibilities

“Students with autism should explore all the educational opportunities that will be available to them after they graduate from high school,” says Caitlin Keener, MSW, LSW, CCTP, Regional Special Education Director for Summit Academy, a network of 24 tuition-free, public community schools in Ohio that specialize in educating students with autism and ADHD.

Depending on the opportunity,  advantages could range from receiving on-the-job training at a vocational school to earning a bachelor’s or associate degree at a college or university where accommodations can be requested through the school’s Student Services or Disabilities Services Office. Other options, such as independent living and life skills programs offer the chance to develop social, life and work skills. Similarly, volunteering provides job training, opportunities to identify and strengthen skills and build self-confidence, as well as experiences to add to a resume.

2. Be your top advocate, ask for help

Unlike in grades K-12, services and accommodations will not automatically be provided to students with autism after they graduate from high school, according to Keener. She encourages students to advocate for themselves and to be prepared to discuss their disability(ies) with their future school, training program or employer.

Colleges and trade schools offer services ranging from note-takers to alternative testing locations and employers may provide options such as checklists and job training in the form of a demonstration, visual instructions or other requested format.

Keener draws on the example of a former Summit Academy student with aspirations of becoming a hair stylist.  In cosmetology school she requested a checklist of her responsibilities from the school as well as extended time to demonstrate hair coloring techniques. Today she is a successful, professional beautician who realized that asking for a few simple accommodations can go a long way in helping achieve a goal. As the saying goes, “You will never know unless you ask.”

Keener advises new graduates to bring documents to validate their need for accommodations. For instance,  Summit Academy students receive a “Summary of Performance” at the end of the 12th grade.

“Students with autism do not need to look at autism as a roadblock, but some are under the notion that they are unable to advocate for themselves,” says Keener, who is passionate about teaching students how to advocate for themselves.

For young adults with autism who want to enter the workforce, Keener says the choice to disclose a disability during the screening process or after receiving a job offer is a personal one. In either case, she encourages young adults with autism to clear this hurdle. They will benefit the greater good in the process, she says.

“It’s difficult to disclose a disability but every time you tell an employer you have autism, you’re helping that person understand autism. You’re paving the way for others in the future to be successful and educating employers that this is what autism can look like and do,” Keener says.

3. Keep communication lines open

Family members, school staff and others close to a student with autism should encourage open and regular communication, says Sensei Lisa Kozak, who teaches therapeutic martial arts at Summit Academy School – Lorain.

Whether the next chapter is a job, college, career training, entrepreneurship, volunteerism or something in between, when a student with autism can talk about those prospects with a member of their inner circle, it will help lay the groundwork for a positive launch into the real world, Kozak says.

“Sometimes it’s a matter of holding space or asking, ‘How’s it going?’” says Kozak, emphasizing the importance of keeping communication lines open and the powerful outcomes that can ensue over time.

Kozak gives an example of a high school student with autism who blossomed over the years thanks, in part, to the steady communication in which school staff members engaged him. “If we would have given up on him, he wouldn’t be the fine young man he is today. He is not the same kid,” says Kozak, describing  the student’s growth in maturity, relationships, martial arts and overall preparation for his future.

Kozak encourages mentors to stay mindful of the way they communicate with autistic children. “A way a person presents things to a student with autism will make or break that communication,” says Kozak. She advises adults to keep a student’s triggers top-of-mind during conversations.

On a similar yet separate note, parents who avoid talking with their children about their disabilities do them a disservice, adds Keener. “We almost create that shame and embarrassment for them,” she says. “Explaining their disability will help them advocate for themselves.”

4. Dismiss societal pressures

“Does my parenting graduate when my kid does?” asks Summit Academy Behavior Specialist Laura Rickard, M.Ed., LPC, who started with Summit Academy in 2003 as a therapeutic martial arts instructor.  As a professional educator and parent of two young adults with learning challenges, Rickard urges parents to remember that not every child needs to follow the stereotypical pathways set by societal norms such as going off to college immediately after high school.

“Their development may be uneven and take more time and they may continue to need guidance and parenting while at the same time pushing us away in order to achieve more independence,” Rickard says. “Have fun with that and be patient with your child and yourself.”

If your autistic child takes more time to achieve a specific goal than another, “So what?” says Rickard, pointing out that an autistic young adult may be way ahead of a neurotypical counterpart in other areas, and it all evens out eventually.

5. Create a roadmap of achievable goals for the post-graduate journey

A full class load for a college-bound student or an entire training course may not always be the right choice for an autistic individual. If this is the case, Rickard recommends students take one or two classes or certification trainings at a time. Likewise, tackle personal and vocational skills in succession. Once a skill is mastered add the next one, Rickard advises.

She also recommends that young adults with autism seek help from a job coach. “Your child and their employer will be happier if tasks are truly mastered, even if that has to be done one at a time,” she says.

Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities, or OOD, provides free job coaching to those who open a case with them.

6. Tap the right resources

Vetting through the many resources that address this transitional developmental period can be overwhelming, says Rickard. She recommends that parents zero in on the offerings that make the most sense and fit in with the dynamics of the relationship parents and guardians have with their children.

Rickard recommends resources available at: Social Thinking and The Yellin Center for Mind, Brain, and Education and Life After High School: A Guide for Students with Disabilities and Their Families , a book by Susan Yellin.

7. Embrace the journey

“You are not alone,” Rickard reminds autistic students and their parents or guardians. “This is for sure a stressful time of parenting, yet it can also be very enjoyable and satisfying to see your child develop into a young adult.”