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Planning Without Pressure for Special Needs Teens

by Jane Wangersky | August 28th, 2015 | Special Needs, Teens

teen smiling (400x400)Before you know it, your teen’s new school year will be in full swing and it will be time to review their Individualized Education Program (IEP) with the school staff. If you live in the U.S., there’s a legal requirement that starts the year your child turns 16: The IEP has to include “Appropriate measurable post-secondary goals” for “training, education, employment, and, where appropriate, independent living skills” (from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act).

You may have mixed feelings about this — I know I do. Few people are really ready to plan their lives at 16. Research on teen brains suggests that emotions have the upper hand over impulse control and that teens have what NIMH calls an “appetite for novelty, and a tendency to act on impulse—without regard for risk.” (Of course, as a parent you already knew that, but it’s nice to have it backed up by scientific research.) Throw a disability on top of that and it can be hard to come up with a realistic plan for life after high school.

Still, there are some ways you can plan without putting too much pressure on your teen to make a decision they’re not ready for. Here’s what I’d recommend.

Save up. Whatever your teen ends up doing after graduation, it’s probably going to cost money. Having a child who’s not what they call “in the range of normal” no longer means you don’t have to save for college or the equivalent. If by chance you don’t need the money after all, there’ll always be something it’s useful for. Check out whatever kind of aid you qualify for.

Check out post-secondary options as a family. The school may take students on visits to colleges and training programs, but many students see this as just a day off from classes. (My own son’s most lasting memories of these trips were usually of the cafeteria.) A trip to an open house with his dad was a lot more focused.

Keep things general for now. There are many programs that teach special needs people “soft skills” for employment — interviewing, being a team player, and so forth — and this is likely a better place to start than any specific job skill.

Let the school know what you’re doing. Especially, make sure they know that you’re keeping options open and not pushing your teen to decide anything yet — but you’re not ignoring his future either.

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